Flagstaff, Ariz. – Three rare California condors in northern Arizona died last month because they ingested lead pellets while feeding on the carcasses of dead animals, according to test results released Monday.
The deaths from lead poisoning are the first in three years among condors in Arizona and Utah. The Peregrine Fund recovered the bodies of a female condor and her year-old chick from the Grand Canyon, and that of a young male from the Arizona-Utah border.
Birds foraging in southern Utah present a challenge for recovery program officials, who must persuade hunters there to stop using lead ammunition.
“We have to remain optimistic because we’ve seen such progress in Arizona, and I guess what it means is we have more work to do,” said Chris Parish, who oversees the release of condors in Arizona for the fund.
Utah is educating hunters about the effects that lead ammunition has on condors. The birds feed on dead animals, often big game killed by hunters or the entrails left behind when they are field-dressed.
High levels of lead can shut down a condor’s digestive system, causing the bird to starve to death.
Utah’s program is modeled after one in Arizona, which asks hunters to voluntarily use lead-free ammunition. Utah plans to give coupons for free non-lead ammunition to hunters in certain areas.
California requires lead-free ammunition.
Condors once numbered in the thousands across North America but were nearly extinct by the early 1980s from the effects of hunting, lead poisoning and habitat encroachment. The final 22 were captured in California and a breeding program started.
There are about 350 condors alive today, with about half in captive breeding programs in California, Arizona and Mexico.
Since the reintroduction program began in Arizona in 1996, 45 condors have died — 15 of them from lead poisoning.