California Condors Threatened by Lead Poisoning

By Kim Baldonado and Brandon Lowrey
|  Thursday, Oct 31, 2013  |  Updated 7:46 AM PDT
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A record number of California condors are grounded due to a poisoning problem. Tiny fragments of lead are causing these birds to get sick. Kim Baldonado reports from the Los Angeles Zoo for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013.

Kim Baldonado

A record number of California condors are grounded due to a poisoning problem. Tiny fragments of lead are causing these birds to get sick. Kim Baldonado reports from the Los Angeles Zoo for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013.

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Tiny fragments of lead from hunters' bullets are causing illness in a record number of California condors, officials say.

The California Condor Program at the LA Zoo, which treats all condors in the state, is treating 21 for lead toxicity, according to Curtis Eng, the program's manager. Symptoms include birds becoming unstable on their feet, weight loss and paralysis.

"If we don't get rid of the lead program, it's going to be a big challenge to get the birds back in the wild," he said.

The birds have a wingspan of 9 feet, making them the largest birds in North America. They're vulture-like scavengers - and that's how they're getting sick.

Hunters are shooting large animals with lead bullets. When the bullet strikes its target, it fragments into thousands of tiny pieces that become embedded in the internal organs and the flesh.

When the condors swoop in for a meal, they end up eating bullet fragments.

California became the first state to require hunters to use non-lead ammunition under a law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown this year. But the law won't take full effect until 2019.

For the California Condor Program, that means six more years of trapping and treating condors in an effort to preserve a species that was on the brink of extinction just 30 years ago.

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