Before there was the Great Auk, there was the California Condor. This may not be true chronologically (the Great Auk is believed to have diverged from pre-Razorbills and pre-Dovkies in the Pilocene, while the California Condor apparently came into its own in the Pleistocene) but that’s how my life went. I was a devotee of endangered animals before I became a connoisseur of extinct ones, and my idealism has not yet been fully replaced by melancholy. The baby geek who drew California Condors (and black-footed ferrets, another perennial favorite) on her book covers, who was tantalized by the prospect that she still could, maybe, see one some day even though California might as well have been the moon, still is eager for news of them.

Sometimes it’s good news.

Sometimes not so much.

“Seven endangered California condors — about 20 percent of Southern California’s population — have been found with lead poisoning.

The birds started turning up sick about a month ago during random trappings at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge in the San Joaquin Valley.

One of the birds died during treatment at the Los Angeles Zoo and four others are still being treated there. A chick and its mother were sent to the zoo to undergo treatment…”

It really pisses me off, frankly, that this is happening. It isn’t some deep, occult mystery that lead bullets are a problem for condors and other scavengers – it’s been suspected since at least 1992 (a year when I was just starting to transition from drawing California Condors in my notebooks to tracing the Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson logos) and all but certain since 2006, when a team of researchers determined that the isotopes of lead found in released Condors matched the isotopes most commonly found in ammo.

The wheels of the law grind slow, but birds die fast, and the second that they’re dead, that’s it. A ban on using or possessing lead bullets in California Condor territory goes into effect on July 1, but the birds can’t go on a diet until then; they’ll be at risk up until the very day (and for that matter afterwards, as the bullets already in the mouldering, wasted venison that the hunters of California can’t be bothered to track will not magically disappear in compliance. Also, and I say this with all due respect, but my experience in landowner-hunter interactions has not left me with perfect faith in the inclination of “sportsmen” to adhere to the law.)

For that matter, we’ve had an inkling in general that lead was just not a good thing to scatter about the landscape. But could the ban come any sooner? No. In 2005, the California Fish and Game Commission refused to ban lead bullets – a move that, from where I’m sitting, looks like pure pocketbook. It’s not like projectiles made of other metals don’t kill the tasty venison* just as dead – but they cost more.

Yeah, I have to admit, I take this sort of thing personally. Although, as I approach my 30th birthday, a trip to California no longer seems like a lunar expedition – I’ve been a princely total of once – I haven’t seen a California Condor. And I still mean to.

*and I’ll be the first to admit that it is tasty. Apparently the Condors agree!

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