California Condors Reestablishing Their Range Across the Golden State
The endangered species still faces major threat from lead poisoning, but wildlife managers are hopeful about recovery prospects
Condors are the iconic bird of the west, the Thunderbird of Native Americans. North America’s largest flying land birds, their ten-foot wingspan allows them to soar over a wide range, from the coast to the Sierras.
Photo courtesy of San Diego Zoo
They were headed for extinction in the 1960s, when they were listed as endangered under the US Endangered Species Act That listing, followed by a listing under California state law in the early 1970s, brought financial and scientific resources to bear, allowing researchers to identify the factors conspiring against them. These included hunting, theft of their eggs by egg collectors, poisoning due to feeding on cyanide-killed coyotes, and being electrocuted when they flew into power lines. Their wild habitat, and the carrion that they eat, were generally disappearing and what was left was degraded. Worst of all, lead ammunition left in gutpiles and the carcasses of coyotes, ground squirrels, and other wildlife shot by ranchers was poisoning them.
As their numbers dwindled, the US Fish and Wildlife Service set up a captive breeding program at the Los Angeles Zoo and the San Diego Wild Animal Park in an effort to save the species. By 1987, the 27 remaining wild birds had all been captured for the program. The critically endangered species still faces challenges to a full recovery, particularly from the ongoing use of lead ammunition by hunters, but wildlife managers say the breeding program and subsequent rewilding program have been a resounding success.
“If it weren’t for lead, condors would be close to having a sustaining population in the wild,” said Joe Burnett senior wildlife biologist and condor program manager for Ventana Wildlife Society in Big Sur, one of several organizations that partner with the US Fish and Wildlife service on the condor recovery program.
Since condor reintroductions began in 1992, the total population of California condors has grown to more than 450 birds, nearly 300 of which are now living in the wild. Condors have reestablished their range through parts of California, Arizona, and Baja California. In California, where the majority of condors have been reintroduced, three small California flocks that were considered separate as recently as 2017 are now a single Central California flock. Wild condors travel freely across much of the state, from south San Jose to Los Angeles, and from the coast to the Sierras. More than 175 birds now live in and around Big Sur, Pinnacles National Park, and Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge Complex.
Individuals find mates as they explore territory far from their release sites. One condor, known as #192, released in the Santa Lucia Mountains near California’s Big Sur region in 1999, made her way south and paired with a male in Southern California in 2004. In 2015, she returned to the Santa Lucias, near where she was released. She fed and interacted with condors there for nine days, then returned to her nest in SoCal, and hatched a chick later that year. (Condor chicks have been hatching from wild-laid eggs since 2008, a major milestone in the recovery program.)
“Distances are nothing to them,” said Burnett. “It’s trivial to them to cruise 50 or 60 miles in the blink of an eye.”
Condors were once found throughout much of North America, and wildlife managers hope they will eventually extend their populations throughout much of the Southwest and into the Pacific Northwest, including British Columbia. To that end, participating governmental and nongovernmental wildlife groups continue to make targeted reintroductions, typically releasing birds in at least pairs or trios at one time. For example, Ventana Wildlife Society released 16 young condors in San Simeon, CA, at the edge of their range and about 150 miles south of Big Sur, over the course of 2017 to increase condors’ central coast numbers. The release site, on a privately-owned ranch, is not being disclosed at the owner’s request.
The four birds most recently released in San Simeon were hatched and raised by condor parents at the Idaho World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, ID, another organization partnering on the recovering effort. Captive-bred California condors have to be strong, able to fly well, and demonstrate appropriate behaviors — such as roosting off the ground and maintaining distance from humans — before they are released. They spend at least six weeks, and sometimes several months, in a flight pen before they are turned free. The flight pen allows them to become familiar with their surroundings, acclimate to the release location, and get the feel of air beneath their wings.
Wildlife managers set out food for the condors in the flight pen, including calf carcasses, stillbirths from local dairies. Because they were born dead, the calves haven’t been injected with any medication and are clean food for the condors. Wild condors, attracted to this easily available food source, visit the flight pens as well, allowing the birds in the pen to familiarize themselves with the social order of the existing flock before they are released. It also gives staff the opportunity to monitor wild condors.
Every condor gets a Very High Frequency, or VHF, transmitter and a numbered identification tag before release so that managers can keep track of them. They also get informal names. The four released in November were named for Game of Thrones characters: the female was named Khaleesi and the three males were given the monikers Tormund, Hodor, and Tyrion.
Of course, the reintroduction effort has not been without challenges. Two of the condors released in San Simeon — known as condors 703, released in 2015, and 760, released in 2016 — died in July 2017. Their bodies, found on the land of the San Simeon rancher, were sent to the US Fish & Wildlife Services Forensics Laboratory in Oregon for necropsy, the technical term for autopsy on animals. Condor 703 died from lead poisoning. (Condor 192, the female originally released in the Santa Lucia Mountains, also died of lead poisoning back in 2015.) Condor 760 fell into an uncovered water tank and drowned. The cover had blown off the tank in winter storms, and the rancher was on his way to repair it when he found the dead condor.
This San Simeon rancher is an advocate for wildlife, and his devastation over the dead condors has turned him into an advocate for non-lead ammunition. Lead-poisoning from lead-based ammunition remains the largest threat to these scavengers, which are exposed to lead when they feed on carrion shot by hunters.
“If it weren’t for lead, condors would be close to having a sustaining population in the wild,” said Burnett. “Ranchers pride themselves on ranch stewardship. Using lead, which is known to hurt all wildlife, isn’t good stewardship. They definitely take it to heart. It was a teachable moment.”
“He’s now one of our biggest non-lead advocates down there,” Burnett added, referring to the San Simeon rancher. “Hunters are going to make the change if guys like him are brought in.”
Despite some setbacks, overall things are looking up for condors. The ultimate goal of the recovery program is to have two geographically distinct populations of 150 birds that can self-sustain themselves, and a third population in captivity. With nearly 300 birds in the wild, and chicks now born to wild-laid eggs, including the first second-generation wild condor last year, achieving that goal may not be that far off.
“This species is turning the corner, showing signs of full recovery,” said Kelly Sorenson, executive director of Ventana Wildlife Society. “We are putting the emphasis on solutions, expanding outward to new places. Naysayers may wonder when we are going to realize that it’s going to fail, but we view it as a wonderful wildlife success story.”