Biologists from Ventana Wildlife Society’s Condor Recovery Project in Big Sur made a disappointing discovery on July 21st. They found the lifeless body of a wild California condor chick lying in thick brush beneath its redwood nest tree in Landel-Hills Big Creek Reserve. Joe Burnett, Sr. Wildlife Biologist for the VWS Condor Project and who recovered the chick personally said, “Although the loss of a wild chick is never easy, we still feel very fortunate to have four chicks surviving in the wild this year. In 2007 and 2008 we had a combined total of three chicks produced and they still thrive today and 2009 is on track to be the most productive year yet for condors in central California.” Mark Readdie, Manager of UC-Santa Cruz Landel-Hills Big Creek Reserve added, “We are excited that the pair is nesting at Big Creek Reserve but it’s tragic how their chick died.”VWS Biologists located the deceased chick while preparing to conduct a routine nest check and exam on the chick. Upon closer examination, Biologists and local Veterinarian, Dr. Amy Wells, noticed an unusual protrusion from the chick’s ventriculus (stomach). Dr. Wells found a matted ball of trash (glass shards, plastic, a piece of metal, and a penny) and animal hair in the chick’s stomach. Condor #503 was then sent to San Diego Zoo’s Pathology Lab for a full necropsy. The necropsy results confirmed our suspicions with the discovery of even more trash (additional glass shards and pieces of rubber) lower in the stomach. Pathologists suspect the penny, which is high in zinc and very toxic to birds when ingested, could have also played a role in this chick’s death. Pathology noted that the carcass of the deceased chick was in an advanced state of decomposition and toxicity tests were inconclusive.
Veterinarian of Monterey’s Avian and Exotic Animal Health Clinic, Dr. Amy Wells said, “Based on the results of the necropsy exam, the most probable cause of death for chick #503 was trash ingestion and digestive blockage, which stopped the intake of food and eventually led to starvation.”
The parents have been diligently providing food for the chick they find along the Big Sur coast, which includes sea lion and whale meat. We suspect the parents are finding small pieces of trash while on the search for food. VWS biologists regularly clean up vehicle pull-off areas on scenic Highway One in Big Sur as a preventative measure. However, the task is just too big of a job for just a few people. “We are alarmed at the amount of trash left behind along the scenic Highway One in Big Sur and its effects on wildlife. We need help to clean up and more importantly we people to dispose of their trash appropriately”, said VWS executive director, Kelly Sorenson.
The wild female chick, known as #503, was approximately 3 1/2 months old and is the offspring of condors #208, aka “Solo” and #168 aka “Beak Boy”. For more information about current status of condor conservation and these individual condors, go to www.mycondor.org
Why the condor parents of this chick are collecting these small trash items is largely unknown, but biologists suspect it is a case of mistaken identity and that birds are accidentally picking up trash when they would normally be finding small pieces of animal bones as a calcium source for their chicks. Although, biologists still feel the most disturbing trend is the amount of trash available to the condors along Big Sur’s scenic highway. Condors aren’t alone with the trash issue; sea birds (albatross) and other animals (dolphins, sea otters) are also impacted by discarded trash. The beauty of Big Sur and its animal inhabitants are breathtaking, but beneath this amazing scenery there lies a trash problem that potentially threatens it all.
Condor #503 is one of five condors chicks produced in the wild in central California this year. The four remaining chicks continue to do well.
Ventana Wildlife Society is the only non-profit organization releasing and monitoring California condors in California and is a member of the California Condor Recovery Program, led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Ventana Wildlife Society began condor releases in Big Sur in 1997 and then initiated a second release site in 2003 at Pinnacles National Monument in collaboration with the National Parks Service. Currently, Ventana Wildlife Society and the National Parks Service monitor and manage a flock of 48 wild condors in Central California, roughly half the population for California, which is currently 94 birds.