Condors land at UC Davis

Museum intern Rachel Alsheikh, a senior majoring in wildlife, fish and conservation biology, prepares a California condor specimen for use in research and teaching. (UC Davis/Gregory Urquiaga)
Museum intern Rachel Alsheikh, a senior majoring in wildlife, fish and conservation biology, prepares a California condor specimen for use in research and teaching. (UC Davis/Gregory Urquiaga)

Museum of Wildlife and Fish Biology acquires six California condor specimens

Not many undergraduates get to handle a prehistoric bird, but UC Davis student Lynette Williams is up to her elbows in a California condor.

True, the bird is dead—killed tragically by ingesting lead after scavenging on carcasses contaminated by lead ammunition. But with preservation, this California condor specimen will live on as a valuable research resource, an instructional aid and a piece of natural history at the UC Davis Museum of Wildlife and Fish Biology.

Williams is an intern for the wildlife museum—one of several students helping with the preparation of six condor specimens recently received from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service California Condor Recovery Program. UC Davis is one of the few places in the United States to be designated a repository for condor specimens, which must be properly handled and preserved for research and educational purposes.

“We’re fortunate because very few collections have condors,” said wildlife museum curator Andy Engilis, who initiated efforts to acquire specimens of this rare bird for UC Davis back in 2011. “We’ve been looking forward to this for a long time.”

Efforts to save an ancient bird from extinction

California condors are among the largest birds in North America. Weighing about 25 pounds and with a wingspan of up to 10 feet, these scavengers have been around since the Pleistocene Era.

“The day the condor specimens arrived here was thrilling,” said Lynette Williams, a junior majoring in wildlife, fish and conservation biology with plans for graduate school and a career as an ornithologist. “When we spread their wings out, we really understood we were handling a Pleistocene relic, something that was flying around when wooly mammoths and saber-toothed cats were still on earth.”

Critically endangered, California condors nearly went extinct in the 1980s, when their numbers dwindled to just 23. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service placed all remaining wild condors into a captive breeding program. After a few years, they began to reintroduce tagged captive-bred condors into the wild with the hope of creating self-sustaining wild populations. Although the condor population remains tenuous, there are nearly 500 descendants of the original 23 condors alive today.

Lead poisoning imperils condor recovery

All six of the deceased condors that UC Davis recently received from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were captive-bred and released at the age of one year to native habitats in California, Utah and Arizona. Fitted with transmitters and tags, the birds are closely monitored in the wild. When a condor stops moving, biologists are dispatched to the site to find the bird, guided by GPS signals.

Dead condors are recovered and necropsied (an autopsy performed on an animal) to determine the cause of death. Then they are stored in freezers to be used for research projects.

After necropsy, the condors were released to an environmental toxicology group at UC Santa Cruz that conducts research on lead toxicity, the number one cause of death for California condors. Necropsies determined that five of the condor specimens eventually released to UC Davis died from lead poisoning, and one died from electrocution on power lines.

UC Davis specimen preparation

The condor specimens—four adults and two juveniles—arrived at UC Davis from Santa Cruz in late December. In January, a team of museum staff and undergraduate students spent six hours assessing, measuring and skinning each of the birds, which is the first step toward preserving each specimen.

With two or three people to a bird, the team carefully removed anything from inside the condors that can rot—organs, tendons, fat. Tissue samples were cataloged and cryogenically frozen for future research use.

Andy Engilis, curator of the UC Davis Museum of Wildlife and Fish Biology, fans out the wings of a recently acquired California condor specimen. (UC Davis/Gregory Urquiaga)
Andy Engilis, curator of the UC Davis Museum of Wildlife and Fish Biology, fans out the wings of a recently acquired California condor specimen. (UC Davis/Gregory Urquiaga)

“It was really stinky because they’re vultures, and they eat dead things, so they smell like they eat dead things,” said Rachel Alsheikh, a senior who interns at the wildlife museum. “Handling condors was a once-in-a-career opportunity, and we haven’t even started our careers! It was really special to touch a bird that has come so close to extinction.”

After skinning and cleaning, the big birds are washed—no small chore in laboratory sinks sized for songbirds and waterfowl. The birds that are most intact will be stuffed and preserved as study skins for teaching and research. Those that are not intact can be salvaged as spread wings and partial skeletons—adding to the wildlife museum’s collection of nearly 60,000 specimens.

Later this spring, the museum team plans to place one of the condor specimens on display in the main hallway of the Academic Surge building on campus. 

“These condors will become a centerpiece of our teaching and outreach mission,” said wildlife museum curator Engilis. “In wildlife labs, UC Davis undergraduates will soon be able to see condors up close and touch these magnificent birds. This will help reinforce ongoing efforts to restore populations in the wild and inspire future conservation biologists.”

Meanwhile, museum staff and undergraduate interns will spend many hours in coming months preparing each condor specimen. “The experience we get at the museum is invaluable,” said Rachel Alsheikh, a wildlife, fish and conservation biology major who would like to continue working in natural history museums after graduation. “I’m really looking forward to talking with potential employers and saying, ‘Yes, I’ve handled a California condor.’”

Viewing on Biodiversity Museum Day

The general public will have an opportunity to view museum staff working with condor specimens at the 7th annual UC Davis Biodiversity Museum Day on Saturday, February 17, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Museum of Wildlife and Fish Biology, Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology, Academic Surge Building, room 1371. A museum biologist will be on hand to answer questions. For more information, please visit Biodiversity Museum Day.

To follow the progress of the condor specimens on social media, visit:

https://www.facebook.com/museumofwildlifeandfishbiology/
https://www.instagram.com/museumofwfb
https://twitter.com/mwfb

Media Contact(s):

Andrew (Andy) Engilis, Jr., UC Davis Museum of Wildlife and Fish Biology, Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology,  530-752-0364, aengilisjr@ucdavis.edu

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