I recently read two news stories about giant birds and angry people. “Woman Eaten by Vultures in 45 Minutes after Falling off Cliff” was one headline. The woman died in a mountainous area of France and her body was devoured by several large scavengers known as griffon vultures, which are one of the Old World vultures. Local farmers are expected to use the incident to try to get permission to shoot the vultures. Farmers claim the birds attack their cattle. Maybe they do on occasion. But that a griffon vulture, one of the world’s ten largest birds, will eat a dead person is not news. Vultures don’t know or care whether the carcass was formerly a cow, lion, or human. That the prey in this case happened to be a dead person does not justify changing the law.
The other story, according to Outdoor Hub, was that “the California [State] Assembly approved a ban on the use of lead ammunition . . . in the taking of any wildlife” in the state. Hunters and the National Rifle Association oppose the ban, one reason being that alternative ammunition is more expensive. What’s the rationale for banning lead bullets? Simple cause and effect: the New World vultures known as California condors almost went extinct, and lead poisoning was identified as a primary cause. When condors eat deer, elk, or other large game that have died from being shot, they consume the lead in the carcass. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service already bans the use of lead in ammunition used by duck hunters because ducks consume lead shot on the bottom of lakes.
The California condor, with a wing span of more than nine feet, is also one of the world’s largest birds. Amanda Holland, who served as a biological intern with the USFWS California Condor Recovery Program in 2010, has a perspective on these magnificent birds that few people have. Currently a University of Georgia graduate student conducting research on vultures at the Savannah River Ecology Lab, she knows more about condors than anyone else I know. She considers the California condor to be one of the country’s most endangered bird species.
In 1987 only 22 were known to be alive. In a daring rescue program, the USFWS trapped all the condors to start a captive breeding program in California. Condors were released back into the wild in 1992. Today more than 400 are alive; at least 234 are free spirits in the wild. Amanda has a stunning photograph of one 33-year-old bird. It was the last to be captured in the 1980s and among the first to be released.
Using radiotelemetry, Amanda monitored the activities and movements of the big birds daily. This provided valuable ecological information about when and where they nested and found food. Part of the program checks the game animal carcasses with radiography that can determine if they have lead shot in the bodies. Unfortunately, many still do. Ingesting tainted carcasses can lead to illness and death in the condors.
Amanda notes the importance of protecting the remaining individuals. “With so few left in the world, every single condor is of great value,” she says. “The more individuals that reach breeding age, the greater the genetic variation available to the next generation of condors, which leads to an increase [in] the overall health and survival of the species.” Wild California condors, which lay only one egg every other year, continue to face many threats that originate with humans. Lead poisoning from consuming carcasses of game animals killed with lead bullets, eating trash that causes digestive problems, and colliding with power lines are bad enough. They should not have to fear being shot at as well.
Who knows what will happen with the angry farmers in France or the unhappy hunters in California. Let’s hope resolutions are forthcoming that will allow us to continue having these big scavengers flying the skies and safely eating dead and decaying things.
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Whit Gibbons is an ecologist and environmental educator with the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Laboratory.