Crowdsourced Science: Condor Watch

CondorWatchIn line with the Essig Museum of Entomology’s CalBug project, a collaborative effort between California museums to digitize and geo-reference their entomological specimens fueled by the crowdsourced Notes from Nature citizen science project reported here last year, this April the folks at Zooniverse are at it again with one of California’s flagship species, the critically endangered California condor.

The fledgling Condor Watch program gives air time to the down time when California condors move in on a meal. With over 10 years of photographs to process, researchers are turning to the public to achieve the lofty goal of identifying individual birds by reading and recording the vinyl patagial tags, placed on the birds’ wings by researchers before they are released in the wild, as well as the birds’ behaviors as they gather to feed around carcass. The candid condor photographs are captured by motion-activated cameras at release sites and feeding stations, and each site is baited with an uncontaminated carcass to lure in passerby diners.

In addition to tracking individual condords, the program also hopes to be able to detect real-time eating or social problems early on that could indicate lead poisoning or other health issues. Condors are particularly at risk of lead poisoning when they ingest bullet fragments after feeding on carcasses hunted with lead ammunition. Sick birds require early medical attention, but they must first be recaptured before they can undergo chelation for lead poisoning. Ancillary data collected along the way – including the variety and numbers of adjunct scavengers species, including ravens, coyotes, golden eagles, and turkey vultures – may provide additional insight into the ecology of carcass feeding sites.

From the comfort of your own home, your task as a Citizen Scientist is to carefully identify and describe all species present in a stream of digital imagery by first ‘marking’ and identifying individual species (not so different from ‘tagging’ friends in a photograph on social networks), and then recording their distance from the carcass. If you are lucky enough to get a condor in the frame, you are also asked to record whether they are an adult or juvenile (there’s a field guide available to walk you through how to identify such particulars) and to record the details marked on their patagial wing tags (identification number, colors, etc.).

Researchers hope to better understand from this study how to predict foraging associations among condors at wild locations, to evaluate the social structure and dynamics at play in feeding groups, and detect whether age, sex, and captive rearing methodology play a role in such associations and feeding station attendance. They also hope to develop a social network map for free-flying condors that describes which individuals within a population interact, a rarity in and of itself.

If ever there was a species and a project that needed help getting off the ground, the California condor and Condor Watch are two prime candidates. With Condor Watch, every click counts towards the recovery of California’ charismatic scavenger.

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