Over Two Thirds of Fatalities of Endangered California Condors Caused by Lead Poisoning


Another blow to the ‘hunters are conservationists’ argument? Seriously, why is it so hard for the so-called ‘hunting community’ (are hunters really united around anything, except perhaps their ‘rights’ to kill at will I wonder) to sort itself out, stop using lead shot in areas used by Condors (many have and use non-toxic alternatives, but many apparently haven’t), and stop ‘accidentally’ killing birds that have cost a fortune to pull back from the brink of extinction? It’s not as if the arguments aren’t well-rehearsed and thoroughly understood. In July 2008, California changed hunting regulations to require hunters in the condor’s range to use only non-lead ammunition, and a very quick trawl of the internet shows that in 2010 Bloomberg (not normally noted for its strong environmentalism) highlighted how a newly-born Condor “and its parents had extremely high levels of lead in their blood”, six years ago USA Today covered the problem, the Arizona Game and Fish Department stated that “At least fifteen condors have died of lead poisoning since 2000″.

How much more time do hunters need to understand the impact they’re having? Or is the real issue that hunters are only interested in what impacts them, and not how what they do impacts everything else?


Press-release from the American Bird Conservancy, 08 Feb 2012:

California Condor by Susan Haig
California Condor by Susan Haig

A new study authored by San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research scientists has found that 67 percent of adult condor deaths are attributable to lead poisoning.

Among the collaborators in the study were the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of California at Santa Cruz and Davis, The Peregrine Fund and the Phoenix Zoo.

There have been a total of 135 endangered California Condor deaths from October 1992 (the date of the first death of a condor released back into the wild as part of the condor recovery program) through December 2009. A definitive cause of death was determined for 76 of the 98 condor deaths the study looked at. Because of the condition of the carcass (and other factors that complicate definitively assigning a cause) the cause of death could not be attributed to all recovered dead condors. Lead toxicosis was the most important factor in juvenile mortality, causing 13 of 50 deaths (26 percent) and causing ten of 15 deaths in adults (67 percent). Trash ingestion was the most important mortality factor in nestlings, causing eight of 11 deaths (73 percent).

The report states that “The mortality factors thought to be important in the decline of the historic California Condor population, particularly lead poisoning, remain the most important documented mortality factors today. Without effective mitigation, these factors can be expected to have the same effects on the sustainability of the wild populations as they have in the past.”

“Although lead toxicosis from spent ammunition still threatens the survival of the California Condor, one of our most iconic species, the good news is that solutions are available in the form of nontoxic ammunition. We can make this a win-win situation if we choose to,” said Dr. Bruce A. Rideout, lead author of the study and Director, Wildlife Disease Laboratories, Institute for Conservation Research San Diego Zoo Global.

“In all likelihood, many more condors would likely have died from lead poisoning had it not been for the fact that all wild condors in California are normally captured twice each year, tested for lead poisoning and then treated if necessary,” said Darin Schroeder, Vice-President for Conservation Advocacy for American Bird Conservancy (ABC), one of the nation’s leading bird conservation organizations.

The massive effort to save the California Condor was initiated in 1982 when the remaining 22 wild birds were captured in a last-ditch effort to save the species. Of the 390 condors that exist today, 210 are in the wild, with 118 in California, 73 in Arizona and 19 in Mexico.

ABC has analyzed almost 500, mostly peer-reviewed studies, and determined that the source of the vast majority of lead poisoning of birds and other wildlife is lead ammunition from hunting. Birds either consume lead pellets when they mistake them for grit that they used to help digest their food, or when they scavenge on the remains of animals hunted with lead shot or bullets. A single ingested lead pellet can cause a slow and agonizing death for many birds. Previous studies have estimated that between 8 and 10 million birds die from lead poisoning each year including Bald Eagles, Golden Eagles, hawks, ravens, vultures and Mourning Doves.

“Here we have another peer-reviewed study with independent scientists confirming that lead is needlessly and tragically killing protected wildlife. While the nation has removed the lead from paint, gasoline, children’s toys, water pipes, and even car wheel weights, we are still using toxic ammunition,” Schroeder said. “Acceptable lead-free alternatives exist, and we need every hunter in America to make the switch to save the lives of countless non-game birds.”


American Bird Conservancy (ABC) is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit membership organization whose mission is to conserve native birds and their habitats throughout the Americas. ABC acts by safeguarding the rarest species, conserving and restoring habitats, and reducing threats, while building capacity in the bird conservation movement.


Feature image: Californian Condor in flight, photographed in Zion National Park, Utah
Date (10 November 2007) Copyright Phil Armitage http://www.philarmitage.net/zion.html


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About the author

Passionate about animal welfare and conservation, veggie and dairy-free, I live in the Wiltshire (UK) countryside. I co-founded Birders Against Wildlife Crime and Birds Korea. Trustee of the League against Cruel Sports On Twitter @charliemoores


  1. Joe says:

    Hello – in regards to the article concerning lead poisoning taking place amongst the birds and wildlife. Even I, with zero amount of medical training, am able to understand that lead consumption cannot be good for any living thing to consume.

    It seems to me that many hunters may not realize the extent of the issue due to the fact that the ammo and hunting lobby have created an immediate distrust of anything attached to the “green” movement. And these are always backed by fact sheets from their side to disprove what those who would ban lead ammo present. See the link I’ve included from the NSSF.


    If you read this fact sheet, it completely discredits the issue and claims it to be a non-issue. So the average hunter, who tends to follow and read gun and hunting related material, takes it as correct. These are for the most part, nice people who truly think they are not causing a problem. But with proper, non-biased information, perhaps the mindset can be changed and create better informed folks to the reality.

    I’m sorry to say that perhaps it is commentary worded such as your post is, that immediately closes the minds of hunters to anything further you may have to say is because first thing you do, is pretty much call anyone who hunts an idiot and and having some sort of caveman mentality. It’s hard to listen to someone when the first thing they do is piss you off. And they want to shut down a lifestyle that they have enjoyed their entire life going back many generations. I think offering a less confrontational discussion, providing workable solutions, a working out comprises that can be lived with, will do more to bring about change for the positive. Albeit perhaps slowly, but at least in a positive direction.

    So who do you believe?


  2. Charlie says:

    Hi Joe
    Thanks for the very interesting comment.
    I would say first of all that I’ve not used the word ‘idiot., and I think it’s perhaps you that are suggesting hunters (you suggest under pressure from their peers?) aren’t intelligent enough to understand for themselves that leaving lead lying around the environment is an irresponsible thing to do when common sense, basic science and literally hundreds of media and well-researched reports says that it is. I’m afraid that saying that “These are for the most part, nice people who truly think they are not causing a problem” is just not good enough. They are causing a problem – and a well-known one. I’m frustrated, and my whole argument is that some hunters simply don’t care that Condors are dying, and won’t care until there is an impact on them – through fines or legislation perhaps?
    Having said that I don’t think for one second that legislation is likely to be implemented because hunting is America’s ‘sacred cow’: it’s almost inviolate, because the US gun lobby is so extraordinarily powerful (partly perhaps because of the way it twists the Second Amendment, and partly because it promulgates the image of the noble frontiersman having to hunt to feed his family). Hunting these days is not – in the vast majority of cases – anything to do with survival. It is, as you say, about ‘enjoyment’ – and that enjoyment should not be allowed to cause a serious environmental impact or the deaths of endangered wildlife. It really is remarkable how attacking even irresponsible hunters in any way – even when they are killing an Endangered species through lead discards when alternatives have existed for years now – inevitably brings up these arguments about tradition and enjoyment. If killing Condors is somehow linked to a ‘tradition’ or a ‘lifestyle’ (which I don’t believe for a second and I’m confident that you don’t either) then that lifestyle needs to be changed. Traditions/lifestyles etc have always changed as a society develops and changes its understanding of the world, and our understanding has changed enormously since lead pellets were invented.
    Your final question on whether I should adopt a more conciliatory approach is something I have considered in the past, but on the issue of using lead pellets and killing Condors I’m afraid I don’t see how there can be a debate. It is wrong, and I don’t see how anyone could defend it.
    Should I engage with hunters in a broader sense though – that’s a very different consideration and my response would be, sure, why not…
    Thanks again for taking the time to comment, Joe – much appreciated.

  3. Joe says:

    Hi Charlie – please don’t take my response as saying that I don’t feel there is a problem because there most certainly is. I’m not trying to act as an apologist for the gun lobbby.

    My point was what needs to be brought to the front is a way to educate the average law abiding hunters and demonstrate alternatives that will “do the job” just as well without the ugly side effects. Like they did with steel shot.

    By including that link I provided, I was attempting to show that there is always something provided by the lobby to disprove the green side of the argument.

    And as I mentioned, hunters don’t read blogs such as this or subscribe to birding magazines. I think a good topic would be to find a hunting “personality” that is known and thought highly of by the hunting community come on and do a podcast with you for a frank and open debate.

    You’re correct that the gun lobby is and has been one of the most influential in US politics practically forever and will instantly attack any perceived threat to their money pipeline. And they aren’t going to go away. In their mindset, they are as certain they are right as you are. Granted, not for the right reason as you are. Or reason in general I suppose. :)

    I still maintain that the best approach is education provided by neutral sources, in the venues that hunters read and watch. Illegal hunters, anywhere in the world, have already demonstrated they just don’t give a damn for what’s right so I don’t know the answer there. I think you would be surprised that even in this day of instant information, people just don’t know.

    Case in point, I was discussing your article on shark finning with my wife last night. She is reasonably informed, follows the news, etc. but had no idea this went on and was horrified by it. But I blame this on coverage. If this article had been on the news or in the paper she would have known. People have to be informed. If James Currie did a special on the plight of the Condor and it aired on the Outdoor Channel, rather than Nat Geo Wild, more hunters would see it. I know thats likely an impossibility but you see my point.

    Anyway, I enjoy the discussion and do hope some solution can be reached before it is too late. Keep up the fight and I appreciate your efforts and your voice in the wilderness so to speak.

    Best wishes – Joe

  4. Charlie says:

    Hello again Joe.
    Thanks once again for a very constructive and thought-provoking comment.
    No, I didn’t think that you were an apologist for the ‘hunting community’ (though there are many and they’re usually very vocal!) I just tend to use comments like yours – which are challenging what I’ve written – to explore and explain where I stand.
    Yes, absolutely, in an ideal world I would really welcome a chance to talk with a hunter on a podcast – I’m well aware that I have so far talked with people I generally agree with! If one reads this and would like to debate hunting with me that would be great: I’m sure we can both be respectful enough to keep things ‘pleasant’ no matter how strongly we disagree with each other.
    Your last point is very important: people do indeed need to be informed – and I don’t mean that in a patronising ‘listen to me I know more about this than you do’ way, but that the alternative viewpoint often isn’t heard enough for people to make their minds up, and that many people (and this is suggested by my own experience with vegetarianism) have ideas that they’re vague about, or are not sure anyone else has and are therefore not sure it’s ‘okay’ to hold. Rather than trying to convert hunters, I’d prefer to think that in this particular instance Talking Naturally is saying that it’s okay to disagree with the powerful hunting lobby and that despite their ‘sacred cow’ status it’s okay to want to to stand up against them. We may actually help someone understand why they feel opposed to an issue without being sure why and with links to other groups or organisations show them that they’re really not the only person who thinks that way. That might be a big reach for a small website like this but I do think you need to be clear about what you believe in.
    Thanks again.

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