Lead bullets are killing California condors in an entirely unexpected way. Well, not entirely unexpected, but if I read about bullets killing birds, I would expect for those birds to have been shot by those bullets. In this case, however, the birds are eating things that have been shot by lead bullets, ingesting lead, and dying from lead poisoning.
The California condor is one of the rarest birds on the planet: poaching and habitat destruction have done such a number on the bird’s population that scientists rounded up the last of them and set up a captive breeding program in an attempt to revitalize the population. Even with captive breeding programs, these birds are about as close as one can get to being extinct without actually being extinct. In recent years, the condors have been slowly re-introduced to the wild, but now a new threat has emerged: lead bullets.
Lead bullets present a two-fold problem: in addition to the problems with lead poisoning, the way the bullet fragments when it hits its target makes it easier for the condors to ingest the lead. If the bullet stayed in one large piece, it’d be easier to eat around. As it is, any condor that eats game killed by lead bullets is likely to eat quite a bit of bullet, too.
Arizona and California have both tried to address the issue. There are bans on using lead bullets in California counties known to be home to condors. These bans have not been entirely effective: farmers and hunters continue to use lead bullets and see the bans as infringing on their rights. Arizona has taken a different approach: in addition to educating the public, the Arizona Department of Fish and Game has been offering free non-lead ammunition to hunters in areas with condors. According to Arizona Fish and Game, hunters have responded well, with high program participation and a positive response to the use of non-lead ammunition.
With much of its population still in captivity and the rest facing tough odds out in the real world, the California condor continues to live life on the fringe. Only through cooperating with the public, careful monitoring of the population, and continued educational outreach will this bird, once so emblematic of the southwest, have a chance.