Once hunted to the brink of extinction, with only 20 birds left in the wild, California condors have slowly began recovering in number after 25 years of careful breeding and scientific work to reintroduce them to the wild. There are now more than 200 condors in California. But as more of them fly free, the birds, whose 9-foot wingspan makes them the largest bird in North America, are turning up dead in increasing numbers, killed by lead poisoning.
Condors are scavengers. They eat dead animals. When hunters shoot deer, wild pigs and other game, they often leave the animals, or parts of the animals, out in the wild. Condors then feed off the dead critters, ingesting lead from the bullets. Scientists have tried voluntary programs to convince hunters in Northern California to remove their kills, or to use other ammunition. But other bullets cost more and don’t fly as well, hunters say. This year, a bill to ban lead ammo in the condor range from the Bay Area to Santa Barbara died in the Legislature under pressure from hunting groups. We follow the biologists who work around-the-clock to bring condors back to the wild, including the operations to save their lives and purge their bodies of lead when they end up on the wrong end of a bullet.