The first California condor hit by gunfire since the rare birds were returned to the wild in 1992 will undergo reconstructive surgery today to repair its shattered leg.
As U.S. Fish and Wildlife investigators in Ventura continue a criminal probe into who shot the condor in Santa Barbara County, veterinarians will perform their second operation on the 13-month-old male.
Scientists believe the bullet that wounded the bird came from a small-caliber rifle that blew apart the lower portion of the tarsometatarsal bone in his right leg. The bone shattered to such an extent that the condor must now spend the rest of his expected 50-year life span in captivity.
"This bird won the lottery to be selected for and released in the wild, and he had been doing very well--one of our star pupils," said Mike Wallace, a biologist who heads the condor recovery program at the Los Angeles Zoo. "Then this irresponsible individual wipes out this bird's chance to be free."
Biologists, who track the condors visually and with radio telemetry transmitters attached to their wings and tails, spotted the wounded bird on the afternoon of May 20, said Robert Mesta, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist in Ventura.
Mesta said observers noticed the bird limping at the Lion Canyon feeding station, 50 miles north of Ojai. Biologists monitored the bird for several days before capturing it June 2 with a net and transporting it to the Los Angeles Zoo.
"We were thinking it was a sprain or that it collided with something," Wallace said about the initial reports of the wounded bird. A close inspection, however, showed the injury to be far worse. An X-ray uncovered telltale white flecks indicating that shards of metal--evidence of a bullet--lodged inside the broken bones.
"It was only a matter of time before we had a bird shot," Wallace said. "We've been lucky so far."
In the first operation earlier this month, veterinarians spent two hours reconnecting the bird's bone fragments with nearly a dozen metal pins and a special leg cast, Wallace said.
Fish and Wildlife crime lab investigators in Ashland, Ore., are conducting a ballistics investigation on other bone fragments from the condor. So far, there are no suspects in the shooting.
Under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, anyone convicted of shooting a California condor faces up to a year in federal prison and $100,000 in fines, said Diane Petrula, a Fish and Wildlife special agent.
In 1993, a Long Beach man was sentenced to two years' probation and a $1,500 fine for firing shots at a condor in Ventura County.
"They're an endangered species, and we're trying to keep them from going extinct," Petrula said. "There's a lot of effort, time and money by many people to keep those birds alive. It's too bad that somebody took it upon themselves to shoot it."
The California condor was among the first species placed on the federal endangered species list, added in March 1967. It is also protected under the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
The wounded condor is one of 38 condors bred in captivity and released into the wild since the species was brought back from near extinction in the late 1980s.
In 1987, scientists captured the last of the 27 wild California condors for a captive breeding program credited with saving the species.
Some of the first chicks released died in collisions with power lines as they prepared to perch on the power poles. Another died of kidney failure after drinking anti-freeze.
There are now 153 condors in existence, with the 154th bird expected to peck free its shell at the Los Angeles Zoo on Monday, Wallace said.