A California condor recently flew from Arizona to Wyoming but died shortly after arriving. California condors are an endangered species, and the bird, which was being tracked, was taken in for a necropsy by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
After the cause of death was determined, the University of Wyoming Museum of Vertebrates was given the body for research and education. London Homer-Wambeam sat down with the museum's curator and collections manager Elizabeth Wommack to find out more about the condor.
Beth Wommack: The condor coming to Wyoming is significant for a couple different reasons. The first one is for the fact that we're not supposed to have condors here, sort of within modern history. Condors' range was restricted at the early part of the 20th century to Southern California. We know that they were in Arizona- there are written accounts from European settlers who had seen them down in Arizona, but there'd been no written accounts of them at that time period up in Wyoming. There [are] some questionable accounts of them, and there are no Pleistocene records of them here. At the same time, there is no reason it couldn't have come here. They're restricted to sort of mountain ranges where there are large open planes that they can scavenge for food, which sounds really similar to Wyoming. The other reason that it's really interesting that bird, in particular, came here is because it's from the release population. So our bird was bred in a zoo in Oregon, then she was released in Northern Arizona and she made her way away from that population. They're fairly social birds, and she sort of went on a wander-journey and came all the way north to us. There's one other condor that's known from that population, an adult female who wandered up out of Utah into the very southern tip of Wyoming and then sort of wandered back down. And she bred and was absolutely fine. But this bird didn't come up from Utah. She must have come up from Colorado, and like came around and [hung] out in Medicine Bow.
London Homer-Wambeam: Condors are pretty rare and were actually considered extinct at one point. What's the reason for the decline in their population?
BW: California condors [are] a really unique species. They're a humungous bird. They're the largest flying bird in North America. The second largest flying bird in the New World. They are sometimes what people call a Pleistocene relic. There were many more condors, and we believe they fed off the megafauna that was there. They're an iconic species. It's fascinating reading the accounts of explorers in California. Even people who've spent a lot of the time out there, they say the minute you see a condor is like the one most amazing minute of your day, your month or your year. They are somewhat tied to large areas of dead game. They are a scavenger species. So the lack of the megafauna, the die-off of the large bison herds and such… they've sort of constricted to the coastline [where] they eat a lot of the marine mammals that wash up there. There are [also] records of them eating salmon on the salmon runs up in Oregon and Washington. They'll eat down to Jackrabbit-sized prey. The other really interesting thing, and why they're so important, is they are kind of being used as an indicator species. So, one of the reasons they're having such a hard time reintroducing them is they are falling prey to a lot of lead poisoning. And a lot of the work on the condors have shown that when a hunter or game warden or something kills an animal with a lead-based shot- it turns out they fraction a lot. And the X-rays are amazing, it looks literally like a little snowstorm in the animal. So what happens is you clean out your gut pile, and if you leave your gut pile there, scavengers are going to come to it, and it turns out they are consuming a lot of lead. A lot of the work going on with that has started with the California condors, figuring out how can we reintroduce this iconic species and make them viable.
LHW: Once this condor made it to Wyoming it died, and there was a lot of concern over the reason it died. Why was it taken so seriously? What were those concerns?
BW: I think people were worried, first off, that maybe something man-made resulted in its death. Some of the other introduced birds have hit powerlines. There [were] no records of anyone hitting it with a car, I think somebody would notice if they hit a condor with a car. But, you know, what if it flew into a fence line? I think people were worried that something we did here in Wyoming caused this bird to die. And because it was only the second record… And really when the call went out that she was there, people were so excited that she was. I think a lot of our hopes were that she would fly out of the state, grow up and then come back and maybe visit us again. We were worried [something] man-made was the cause of her death, and it turns out wasn't. Something to do with her neurological system they think went wrong.
LHW: What's the end of this bird's story? What's going to happen with her body?
BW: She's now become a specimen at the University of Wyoming Museum of Vertebrates. We got special permission from the federal government to house her here. It's amazing to have her here and truthfully, while her life has stopped, her use, her future, has not. It's going to continue on. That means people can come here and they can study how large and what shape a California condor wing looks like compared to other birds of prey that come here in Wyoming. They can look at her bone structure. How is her skull different than say, like a red-tailed hawk or a turkey vulture? School students can come and do art projects associated with her. Genetic researchers can come and ask us for a subsample of tissues. So essentially her life after death will probably never stop.