Help the Condor Fly, Not Die: Battle Against the Threats

The Problem

Students selected the topic of California condors following a student presentation and class vote. Students researched and found that in 1982 wild condors were deemed extinct, when all 22 remaining birds were captured for a captive breeding program. Today about 400 condors exist, with almost half flying free. Students were shocked to learn that the primary threats to this old world vulture are human-created, and the most prevalent, lead poisoning, could be easily resolved. Lead poisoning from lead ammunition affects one in three condors, with one in five requiring extensive treatment or death. Poisoning occurs when bullet fragments (in carcasses) are ingested by condors. “I was shocked that out of one million dots of blood, one quarter of a dot of lead would be enough to kill a condor,” comments one student. Another serious threat to condors is from DDT - a pesticide banned over 30 years ago! DDT is the primary cause of eggshell thinning, which causes eggs to crack during incubation. Micro-trash ingestion is another big problem, with three out of four condor chicks in the wild suffering from this, and one out of four dying from it. “I was shocked that condors could die of starvation from a full stomach of micro-trash,” said a student. “I remember reading about a condor chick that died with 32 pieces of micro-trash in its stomach. I felt grossed out and sad that the little chick didn’t get to grow up to be a full-size condor, and I wanted to help.”

Plan of Action

Our plan included students working in teams to research via the Internet, expert visits, field trips and library resources to create and conduct oral presentations related to condors. Students utilized their research to write an original and humorous script depicting the plight of the California condor and how we can help "battle" its threats. This student written, acted, edited DVD will be sold to raise funds for small businesses in developing countries through micro-lending, and for organizations that work to monitor and assist the condors. Students participated in a clean-up of our local watershed, with a local environmental organization and their preschool/kindergarten buddies. Together they gathered data on the types and number of pollutants they found. These pollutants pose a threat to the wildlife, including the California condors. The clean-up data was compared to their two-week household waste data to reflect upon their use habits and environmental pollutants. Additionally, students worked with their little buddies to gather shells that were brought to Ventana to provide a safe alternative for the 2013 nesting condors to prevent micro-trash ingestion. Students were empowered to write letters to their state and federal representatives after an extensive study on the United States Constitution, Bill of Rights and levels of government. Students exercised their First Amendment rights as they expressed their desire to see a ban on lead bullets, a lead bullet buy-back program, reform of organic farm certification and improved roadside clean-up programs. Students employed formal letter writing techniques and supported their persuasive arguments with the data collected through their research, fieldwork and science experiments. With the understanding that the main threats to condors arise from people’s everyday choices, students worked to organized and advertise their “Do One Thing” campaign. To spread word of this campaign, students utilized originally designed postcards, social media, information booths at public community events and word of mouth. Their primary message is that through simple everyday changes, individuals can have a big impact on the condor and the environment. As one student shared, " Now, when I think about the condors and their plight I want everyone to know what I know. I want to tell people about the condors, have them feel for them and help them like I do. When I talk to my mom’s friends I can’t help but tell them everything I know, and they’re pretty impressed." The student-created film was featured at Andrew Molera State Park’s Discover Center, and screened for our school student body. In addition, the film is being considered for future showing at the park due to the high interest level, at the Gilroy Public library (part of the Santa Clara County Library system) and for an environmental film festival in Santa Cruz County. Students engaged their preschool kindergarten buddies in the effort, hosting an educational day at the classroom with one-on-one lessons, including creating a full-sized pair of felt condor wings. Together fifth graders and PreK students cleaned up the watershed and collected shells to give to the Ventana Society. The shells will help with the condors’ calcium ingestion during nesting season and help reduce micro-trash ingestion. After learning that California condors are the most endangered bird in the world, students contacted federal and private organizations looking for ways to get involved in conservation efforts. Students partnered with the Ventana Wildlife Society for a public presentation, and created an educational mural out of micro-trash to be installed at the park. Students worked with Friends of the California Condors, a conservation organization, to develop a children’s activity book about condors; and partnered with Save Our Shores to clean up the watershed and collect data on the pollutants they found (see attached data chart). Students wrote to state and federal representatives encouraging their adoption of the lead bullet ban, lead bullet buy-back program, organic farming reform and improved roadside clean up. For their film, students formed a production company, including a with CEO, CTO, CFO, production director, and public relations, art, sales and music departments. They designed a DVD jacket, marketing materials, press releases, music, and sales spreadsheets. The film was written, directed, filmed, and edited by the students, and presented their perspective about how choices impact the condor, its recovery efforts and the larger web of life. Students are invited to present their at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Plastic Pollution Summit. Students sold their film to raise funds for condor conservation; they earned more than $2,500, which they will invest in micro-loans to Kiva.org. Once repaid, the money will support future fifth grade projects and condor conservation efforts. Using the scientific process students conducted numerous experiments in order to successfully gather data. One experiment determined which beaches in the condor’s watershed carried the most micro-trash, and how this relates to the number of beach visitors. “We collected data starting with our waste at home for two weeks,” explains a student. “We found that as class we threw out 44% paper, 34% plastic, 9% Metal/Aluminum, 8% Other, 4% Glass, 1% Styrofoam. Of the trash collected at the watershed clean-up, we had 66% plastic, 19% Styrofoam, 7% Paper, 6% Glass, 2+% Other, Less than 1% Aluminum/Metal. When I compared my house’s data and the class’ data to the beach data, I realized plastic was always the most common thing thrown away and that we found. “We also gathered 12 cups of sand from each of 9 different local beaches and sifted it to count the micro-trash. Each beach, even though it is winter, had micro-trash! Just like the clean-up, plastic was the most common type of trash!” Another experiment was aimed at determining if a thinned eggshell could withstand as much pressure as an unaltered egg, thus evaluating the effects of DDT on eggshells. “We used 12 organic chicken eggs and soaked 9 of the eggs in vinegar for 5, 11, and 15 hours,” explains another student. “We distributed the pressure, like a mother condor, evenly against a scale to show how many pounds of pressure. It took an average of 17 lbs. of pressure to crush the 5-hour egg, vs. the average for the un-thinned egg was 77 lbs. of pressure. From these findings I learned that if a weak acid like vinegar can thin an eggshell then a strong reactant like DDT definitely impacts condor eggs.” A global expansion of the project occurred when one fifth grader traveled to an orphanage in India. While at the Sri Ram Ashram, this student held a presentation educating the ashram residents about the California condor and compared it to the endangered Indian vulture. This presentation inspired a local watershed clean up and partnering with our class to create an environmental curriculum within their school to teach the public about the vulture! Through this project students developed a sincere desire to learn about and protect this species. They chose to work through many recesses and on numerous weekends. Our classroom recently erupted in cheers of joy when students learned about legislation introduced to ban the use of lead bullets in California!

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