In Memory of Condor 337
The biologists don’t give names to individual condors. Instead they get a number. Supposedly this helps keep the biologists from getting too attached to the birds. I’m a photographer, not a biologist. Does it make a difference? When I heard that Condor 337 died, I cried.
I got the news on Father’s Day. Wretched timing as 337 had just become a dad again and was tending a chick in a cave high up the towering orange walls of Zion National Park. In 2014, Condor 337 gained the distinction of having sired the first wild-hatched chick in Utah. It’s common that a condor pair’s first attempts at rearing a chick fail. That chick didn’t survive.
In 2015 GPS data suggested that 337 and his mate 409 may be tending a new chick. They were commuting back and forth between food sources and a possible nest site in the Kolob section of Zion National Park. Perhaps there was a chick they were feeding in the outback. However, nobody had seen a chick to confirm this. At the time I was just over a year into my mission to photograph every wild condor in the Arizona/Utah population. 337 and 409 were both birds I had yet to see, so when I was invited to join biologist Eric Weis on a reconnaissance to check for the chick, I jumped at the chance.
It was three days after Christmas, sunny and cold. Our first telemetry check from the roadside yielded little.
We moved closer to the last known location and picked a high point to gain for another signal check (both 337 and 409 carry small GPS and radio transmitters attached to their wings). It was clear and sunny and gaining the high point involved a mile of hot slogging through wet snow only to summit and find a road coming up the other side. Why work smarter when you can work harder instead? From the hilltop we picked up a signal and Eric spotted one condor from several miles away through his spotting scope. Was it 337 or 409? No telling from that distance. But we had a lead.
We hiked down the hill then drove to where a suspected carcass might be. The first hint the condors might be around were some eagles flying about.
An immature Bald Eagle cruising for carrion.
Eagles are frequent scavengers and sure enough there was a carcass nearby. Then on the hillside I saw two black birds even larger than the eagles. Jackpot! It was 337 and 409.
337 gives a loving glance over his shoulder to 409. Check these two lovebirds off my list.
These were hard birds to get photos of because they rarely joined the other birds that frequent the release site atop Vermilion Cliffs.
337 and 409 soaring together in happier times. Mated condor pairs like to fly in tandem.
I’d succeeded in photographing 337 and 409, but we still hadn’t seen a chick and I knew I could get better shots if I worked harder (or maybe smarter?). 409 flew across the valley and settled in on the hillside while 337 disappeared. Had he gone to feed a chick?
Only one way to find out - slog up another snowy hill only this time steeper and looser. Two steps up to every one step sliding back down. It was going to be a low probability trip - there was less than an hour of daylight left, the hiking arduous, and no telling how far 337 might have wandered off.
Biologist Eric Weis trudges up the hill in search of Condor 337 and a possible undocumented chick.
Real estate Bill Gates couldn't afford - Condor 337 at home near Zion National Park.
The sun was just about to kiss the horizon and the light was warm and delicious. I backed away from the tree to get my angle and 337 obligingly busted off some nice poses for the camera. We tried to locate a nearby chick, but there was none to be seen. A few minutes later as the shadows licked up 337’s tree, he yawned mightily, spread his wings and leapt forward into the blue sky.
As it turned out, there either wasn’t a chick or it didn’t survive. If it had, 409 and 337 would still be busy raising that chick and would not lay another egg this year.
Fast forward to 2016 and we have a confirmed chick for 337 and 409. When I heard the news I was so excited I couldn’t get to sleep. Last week 337 became sedentary and stopped making food runs for his family. Biologists from the Peregrine Fund’s Condor Recovery Project went to check up on him and found him lethargic, dehydrated and severely emaciated. The biologists took him in for treatment, but 337 was too far along and he died the next day.
How did 337 die? 337 tested positive for high lead levels in his blood. Over half of all diagnosed wild condor deaths are from lead poisoning. Among other symptoms, lead poisoning causes paralysis of the digestive system - a bird with a full crop and stomach can die of starvation because food can’t move through the GI tract and rots in place. 337’s emaciation and dehydration were consistent with these symptoms.
Condor 409 has been widowed and now has the enormous task of trying to feed and raise a chick on her own. (More awful timing - International Widows Day was yesterday). Compounding the tragedy is that 337’s death was so easily avoidable.
The solution to lead poisoning is simply for hunters, ranchers and anyone else who dispatches an animal with a gun to use non-lead ammo instead of lead bullets. This prevents lead from entering the food chain where it doggedly persists and continues to kill. For instance, a rancher might euthanize an ailing steer with a lead bullet. Later a group of scavengers (eagles, coyotes, turkey vultures, ravens, condors, etc.) clean up the carcass. Because lead bullets fragment while traveling through an animal several of the scavengers might ingest lead fragments. Those that do become sick and/or die and if their carcasses are scavenged the lead fragments can be consumed again. Lead poisoning takes time to kill, so there’s always concern that if a new parent like 337 ingests lead, he can pass it on to his chick when he regurgitates food for the young one. We all hope this has not happened to 337’s offspring, and that his mate 409 didn’t eat from the same tainted carcass. So far 409 and the chick appear in good health and the chick is probably old enough to maintain it’s body temperature long enough that his mom can go on food runs.
Will 409 be able to raise their chick on her own?
This incident occurred well outside hunting season, which demonstrates that lead poisoning can occur at any time of year. And while condors prefer to gorge on freshly dead large mammals, they will also eat smaller carcasses - varmints and such.
What can we do to help? If you’re a hunter or someone else who dispatches animals with a gun please use non-lead ammo. The remains you leave behind will then become a nutritious meal for a scavenger. Please do this whenever and wherever you hunt, not just in condor country. An alarming number of bald eagles contract lead poisoning too and they are found nearly everywhere. We took lead out of our paint and out of our gas and out of our pipes (unless you live in Flint). It’s terribly toxic. Why pump it back into the environment? Furthermore the new non-lead ammunition is very effective - for more info on the latest findings please visit huntingwithnonlead.org, a website by and for hunters. Save your lead ammo for target shooting, that way you’ll never have to worry if it was your bullet that inadvertently killed one of these majestic and rare birds. If you don’t hunt, but have friends or family that do, encourage them to make the switch and share the link: huntingwithnonlead.org. To help the Condor Recovery Project directly click here and you can choose condors specifically on the donation page.
There are only 74 wild condors in the Arizona/Utah population, of those perhaps 20 are males of breeding age. At twelve years old, 337 was one of the elder males. He had terrific attributes - he was one of the more independent birds in the population, preferring to seek out his own food sources rather than rely on food left out by the biologists. It is this sort of independence that will be needed for condors to become a self-sufficient population in the future. Sadly, it is also this independence that made 337 more susceptible to ingesting the lead that caused his death. I’ll remember 337 as a hard bird to find, but one of the most rewarding to photograph. I hope his chick survives and leads me on more wonderful adventures.
Condor 337 (2004 - 2016)
I'm not a birder but this was touching, sad and beautifully written. And the photos are incredible. Thanks John.
Great read Verm! And you didn't have to wear toilet paper to do any of this!
I shared this on my FB
As an individual who has loved condors since childhood, I find it sad and frustrating when this happens. I have watched them in Los Padres, Big Sur and Arizona among a few places and also would visit Ian and Eben McMillan to discus condors and conservation methods in the early 80's. Every new birth is exciting and gives one hope for the species , but ultimately man causes the destruction of this beautiful symbol of the wilderness. When will we learn?
There is NO REASON this should still be happening! It just breaks my heart when I hear of an incident like this.
Such sad news and so avoidable. I was recently visiting the ghost town of Kelton, Ut and traveled along the Transcontinental Scenic Byway. There were bullet casing everywhere and dead rabbits. We stopped to check out the rabbits, they had been shot and left. We saw eagles, ravens and turkey vultures eating the carcasses. My first thought was lead poisoning as I viewed the scene.
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