Shock Therapy is Saving Endangered California Condors

By Carl Engelking | August 31, 2015 2:27 pm


North America’s largest bird is on the verge of extinction, and scientists are using shock therapy to give them a fighting chance.

The California condor’s wings stretch nearly 10 feet across to help them glide atop air currents while they search for a meal to scavenge. Power lines are a formidable foe for these birds because their large size makes it easier for them to be electrocuted.

Now, with fewer than 500 California condors remaining, researchers are administering gentle shocks to teach the birds to avoid these dangerous obstacles.

A Big Bird Problem

It’s common to see birds sitting atop power lines unharmed. That’s because it’s safe to touch a single line, but touching two at a time can be fatal. California condors’ large size means they are much more likely to strike two lines at a time.

So scientists at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park are hoping to increase California condors’ power line awareness by constructing faux power lines in training pens that gently shock the birds to instill an aversion to power lines.

Researchers started placing training power lines in condor sanctuaries at the zoo, and the birds learned to avoid the cables after receiving a few zaps. According to a study published in Biological Conservation, 66 percent of untrained condors released from the sanctuary died of electrocution, but that number dropped to 18 percent with training by 2011.

“Utility lines are not a significant problem anymore,” Bruce Rideout, one of the study’s authors, told New Scientist.

And when trained condors are reintroduced into the wild, they’ll pass down an aversion to power lines to their offspring that learn their flying skills from mom. Researchers at the zoo are already seeing condor chicks follow their parents’ lead in the sanctuary.

Not Done Yet

During the 20th century, the California condor population dipped to just 22 birds. An aggressive conservation program, which started in 1988, helped bring the birds’ numbers back up to about 435. Still, California condors face an uphill battle before they fly off the endangered species list.

Human activities — power lines and habitat destruction, for example — have caused a lot of trouble for condors. However, hunters’ kills pose the greatest threat. Condors scavenge the carcasses that are left behind after a hunt, but the lead bullets remain in the animal’s body. Condors, as a result, get lead poisoning from eating the ammunition that remains in the carcass.

The California condors’ comeback isn’t complete, but learning to navigate in a world rife with man-made obstacles could give them a fighting chance.


Photo credit: kojihirano/Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
  • PhilMcCraken

    Lead left behind from a hunt is minute and not even worth mentioning in this article, it’s not even close to a significant cause for condor mortality. The author’s anti-hunting stance reeks, he knows nothing about hunting.

    • mike

      You murricans and your guns…..

      California Department of Fish and Wildlife

      “Today, lead poisoning is a serious problem for the birds in the wild. In an effort to get the lead out of condor range, the Governor signed Assembly Bill 821 (Ridley-Tree Condor Preservation Act) in 2007 to create a “non-lead” zone relative to hunting within the range of the California condor.”

      “A major problem has been contamination from lead fragments in carcasses…..”

      • PhilMcCraken

        That’s called propaganda. Sounds like you’re from a country that was used to getting it a lot. Until Murricans and our guns saved you.

        • mike

          Well, you never saved us from propaganda with your guns. But, in 1812 you tried to invade us. Didn’t work out so well.

          • PhilMcCraken

            Not from anything YOUR country did. Everyone knows if you get invaded your big Uncle Sam will be there to protect you. We are your protectors; you’re welcome very much.

          • Jack Tite

            You cant even protect yourself with your trusty guns

          • PhilMcCraken

            You can’t even use correct grammar. And I’m protected just fine. So are you.


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