An early report of death due to microtrash

A significant threat to California condors today is “microtrash”, small bits of trash that condors find on the ground and eat. This post provides some current information about the microtrash problem and then notes a century-old case of microtrash causing the death of a condor.

Condor chicks are especially vulnerable to microtrash. According to Jeffrey R. Walters and colleagues:

Condor parents feeding nestlings small items of trash has been the major cause of nest failure in southern California.

These authors continue:

… nesting success in southern California was negligible until intensive management of nests was instituted in 2007. It is likely that fledgling success would be reduced to near zero again if chicks were not examined monthly for ingestion of microtrash (i.e., small bits of refuse of human origin, including items such as rags, nuts, bolts, washers, plastic, bottle caps, chunks of pipe, spent cartridges, and pieces of copper wire …)

In 2013, Los Padres ForestWatch, a non-governmental organization (NGO), published a report about the microtrash produced by oil extraction activities in California condor habitat. As part of this research, 1000s of pounds of microtrash were collected. But that statistic does not convey a sense of the problem as vividly as these photos from the report:

01 Microtrash

On the left is an x-ray of a condor with a microtrash-blocked digestive tract. On the right is the microtrash surgically removed from a condor.

Microtrash is not, however, a new problem for California condors.

The New York Times for 17 March 1905 includes “A Big Young Condor Arrives at the Zoo”. This article tells of

Search Me, the first California condor ever brought alive to New York, and a baby type of the rarest bird of prey in North America …

This bird was exhibited at the New York Zoological Gardens.

Although not mentioned by name, it is likely that Search Me was the subject of a New York Times article published the next year, “Don’t Feed Bronx Animals” (19 October 1906). This article notes the

… recent death of a California condor after eating a rubber band …

The article continues:

The condor was worth $300; the rubber band was worth half a cent. After the bird swallowed it indigestion set in, and on Tuesday the condor died. An autopsy performed by Dr. Blair brought the cause of death to light.

More details are presented in the 26 October 1906 issue of the journal Science under the heading “Scientific Notes and News”:

The rubber band had lodged in the pyloric orifice of the stomach, completely closing it, and arresting the entire process of digestion.

The Science article notes that the California condor was acquired by the zoo “after two years’ continuous effort” and that the “bird has been kept in fine health until a few days ago”.

Search Me’s death was also reported in the 15 August 1907 issue of the Zoologist, a journal published in London. Graham Renshaw put it simply:

This valuable bird was killed by swallowing an indiarubber band given by some crazy visitor.

The death of Search Me raises the question of how many wild California condors died from ingesting microtrash in the years before intensive management began. The kinds of material we now call microtrash would have begun appearing in condor habitat more than a century ago. And the prevalence of this material would have increased as the human population grew and encroached on that habitat. It is troubling to imagine how many of the great birds have perished from such small remnants of modern human society.

Walters, Jeffrey R, Scott R Derrickson, D Michael Fry, Susan M Haig, John M Marzluff, and Joseph M Wunderle Jr. Status of the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) and efforts to achieve its recovery. Auk. October 2010.

Trashing the Sespe: how the oil industry is littering our public lands and endangering wildlife. Los Padres ForestWatch. November 2013.