Window on Nature
By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
On July 17, 1979, on Mount Pinos near Frazier Park, California, we stood by the side of a winding road, peering through our binoculars in total silence. What do you say when you are viewing one of the last survivors of a species, knowing that an ongoing argument would determine its continued existence or extinction?
We had been given directions to this spot from birding friends we had met the previous year, but we knew our experience was a matter of luck rather than skill. Soaring below us, moving up a canyon, was one of the last California condors in the world.
In 1939 there were around 150 of these birds in the wild. By 1967 the total had dropped to between 50 and 60. And in 1979 we were staring at one of the 25 to 30 that remained. We watched until it disappeared around a bend in the canyon.
The argument was about whether a captive breeding program could save these creatures, or whether human interference would hasten the process of losing them. Now move ahead to 1985. Although there were some condors in captivity, the wild population was down to nine, and time was running out. By 1987, after years of disagreement, all the remaining condors were captured and became part of a captive breeding program.
The California condor is North America’s largest terrestrial (land) bird, standing between 4 and 5 feet tall, with a wingspan that could be more than 9 feet across. Imagine peering out of an airplane window when you’re flying three miles high and spotting this massive black bird soaring. Planes fly faster and farther than condors, but how many birds do you know of that can cover as much as 150 miles while peering down to look for a meal?
Condors are indeed impressive in flight, but up close they’re a fright. They’re big and black, with a lumpy, bumpy, naked head dressed in orange, yellow, or more often bright red. The strange head surface serves a purpose, however. It’s perfectly designed to keep rotting food from sticking to them while they eat.
Condors are scavengers, part of the avian cleanup crew. Like vultures, they eat dead animals. Condors typically feed on the carcasses of deer, sheep, and cattle. But those flying along the Pacific coastline are also known to drop down to dine on dead seals, sea lions, and the occasional whale washed up on shore.
A condor might gulp down two or three pounds of meat in a meal, which allows it, when necessary, to fast for several days. If no large carrion is available, the bird is willing to subsist on appetizers, eating other sources of protein such as dead fish, rabbits, and rodents.
California condors have a lifespan not all that different from humans, and living for 60 to 80 years isn’t unusual for them. But condor youngsters mature much faster than humans. They’re grown up and on their own at the age of 5 or 6.
Condors mate for life, sometimes using the same nest repeatedly rather than finding a new one. Crevices and caves in rocky cliffs seem to be their preferred location. No actual nest is constructed, but the pair gathers up bits and pieces of debris in and around the site to cradle the egg and comfort the hatchling. California condors have just one hatchling every two years.
Both parents protect and tend their egg for two months before the chick is ready to emerge. They don’t, however, help the chick break out of its shell, even though the process may take a week before the hole is big enough to enable the youngster to escape. It’s assumed that the chick benefits from the activity as part of its development.
Once the youngster is free of its shell, the parents continue taking an active role in its health and welfare. After five or six months of increasing activity, the youngster is ready to practice flying, and it certainly needs their protection and encouragement.
Immature condors soar across the sky for several years before they achieve full adult plumage. But with such a long lifespan, how surprising is that?
California condors rely on wooded mountains and land covered with shrubs for survival. Based upon recorded sightings and the collection of condor bones and pellets, specialists conclude that as recently as two centuries ago thousands of them soared in Western North America, from British Columbia, Canada, south to Mexico.
But in the 19th century, the population began to decline. Several reasons cited include loss of habitat and hunting. But there were others. Beginning in the early 20th century, ranchers poisoned predators such as coyotes, bears, lions, and small mammals to protect their livestock. When condors fed on these dead animals, they, too, were poisoned. Condors also are susceptible to lead poisoning when they consume dead animals that have been killed with lead bullets. Power lines pose a problem as well. While all birds are susceptible to electrocution, the California condor’s size and wingspan make it even more at risk.
But in recent years the condor news has been good. In spite of the skeptics who insisted that California condors were doomed and that humans could do absolutely nothing to prevent their extinction, the condor population has increased dramatically relative to the several dozen taken from the wild. Scientists, zoo workers, and condor parents get the credit. It was a steep learning curve for the human participants, necessitated by the small number of birds (and genes) they had to work with. Now there are more than 200 living California condors, almost all taken into or born in captivity. And an increasing number of them have been returned to the wild.
Here’s a quick review of the techniques used to produce that success.
After a female condor laid an egg, it was removed from the nest, thus encouraging “double clutching.” Usually, the females laid another egg to replace the one that was “snatched” away. The second egg was left with the mother. The eggs removed from their mothers were placed into mechanical incubators for hatching. But once hatched, those chicks were dependent upon human “parents.”
Enter the famous “condor puppets,” created and used to reassure the youngsters that they were being cared for by their actual parents. Taped sounds of adult condors were played for the chicks as well. Phony as it sounds, the ploy worked. The captive chicks didn’t imprint on humans. There was no other way that these captive-bred condors could survive and reproduce in the wild.
In 1987 the last of the wild condors were placed in captivity. In 1992, just five years later, the first of the captive-bred birds were released into the wild. You can bet there were a lot of fingernails chewed as the condor team watched “their” birds leave. All the commitment and the hours spent raising these birds paid off.
In 2002 three condor chicks hatched in the wild, the first in 18 years. Even though none of these birds survived to adulthood, there was proof that captive breeding followed by releasing young birds was a viable program.
On March 28, 2006, in Big Sur, California, KTVU-TV presented some encouraging news. For the first time in more than 100 years, scientists reported that California condors were spotted nesting in the northern part of the state. Thanks to captive releases, more youngsters have hatched and survived in the wild. For the California condor, it looks like better days lie ahead.