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Critics See Flaws in Condor Plan

Conservation: A study has found captive birds' offspring overly tame and threatened by lead poisoning from animal carcasses tainted with buckshot. Some biologists dispute findings.


Rescued from the brink of extinction in the 1980s, the California condor is soaring freely again in the West due to a captive-breeding campaign enlisting all of the species' surviving adults.

But a new study warns that unsafe food sources and the captive condors' tame offspring could doom efforts to save the birds.

A third of the young condors released to date--35 of 104--have died, a fact the study's authors conclude is too high a cost for a species that numbers only 169 animals.

"The solution is an unpalatable one--and that's to bring these birds in for the good of the species," said the study's lead author, Vicky J. Meretsky, an assistant professor of conservation biology at Indiana University.

Biologists who work on the release program were critical of Meretsky's research, which appears in the August issue of the journal Conservation Biology. They also believe it would be foolish to remove the captive-bred condors from the wild just as the oldest birds are nearing sexual maturity.

But Meretsky and her colleagues see two daunting problems facing the condor rescue effort: the overly tame birds yielded by the captive-breeding program, and the lead-poisoning deaths of condors that feast on animal carcasses riddled with buckshot.

This year alone, five birds have died from lead poisoning; several others were captured and treated for ingesting the toxic metal.

Lead poisoning nearly wiped out the California condor, a homely scavenger whose 9 1/2-foot wingspan makes it North America's largest bird. By the time all the wild condors were rounded up in the 1980s for the breeding program, just 27 remained.

Wildlife biologists have succeeded in sparking condor reproduction by removing eggs from the captive females' nest boxes so they will lay other eggs. The pilfered eggs are hatched in incubators, and the chicks are raised by humans wearing hand puppets resembling adult condors.

This technique has resulted in far more puppet-raised birds than those raised in the wild.

Despite efforts to reduce their exposure to humans, Meretsky said many of the puppet-raised condors approach humans to beg for food. One even tore its way into a tent.

The puppet-raised birds' bad ways have also rubbed off on some of the parent-raised birds, Meretsky said. She fears a public backlash if one of the sharp-beaked birds attacks someone.

Since 1992, numerous groups of puppet- and parent-raised birds have been released at sites in California and Arizona.

Meretsky wants most of the 46 wild condors reunited with the 123 captive birds due to the persistent behavior problems. Many problematic birds have already been pulled from the wild, she noted.

The release program, which together with the breeding effort costs more than $1 million annually in federal, state and private funds, could resume next year using only parent-raised condors, she said.

While the puppet-raised birds have exhibited unnatural behavior, the problem just isn't that serious, said Lloyd Kiff, science director of the Peregrine Fund, a nonprofit conservation group in Boise, Idaho.

Kiff also said there's no conclusive evidence that puppet-raised condors fare worse in the wild than their parent-raised cohorts.

He said he is "prepared to place a bet" that the program can overcome the birds' problems and still meet its goal of a self-sustaining population of 300 wild birds.

Behavioral problems also hampered efforts to reestablish the Andean condor in South America, but once the young Andean releases reached sexual maturity that behavior ended, said Greg Austin, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Ventura.

"They started acting like wild condors. We believe the same thing will happen with our condors," he said.

The birds may get a break from a new, nontoxic tin-tungsten ammunition expected to hit the market next year, Austin said. .


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