a five condor day – California Condors in the Big Sur
one of the most intriguing raptors (just about still) around is the California Condor. When I last passed down the California coast for a few days early in 1991 I had no chance of seeing them – the last 22 birds had all been captured and taken into captivity by 1987. Modernity does not agree too well with this scavenger with its 9-foot wingspan – birds were being electrocuted by powerlines and poisoned by the remnants of lead bullets left in the carcases of deer. Many experts believed that, even if the they could be bred in captivity, there were simply too few left to allow the species to last as inbreeding would simply, gradually finish the job that industrial society had started.
Dedicated efforts by conservationists, and not a small amount of money ($35 million to date), saw this Condor thrive in zoos and captive breeding facilities. In late 1991 the first individuals were released back into the California skies. Since then they have been followed by many others. Today 148 birds fly free in California, Arizona, and western Mexico and similar number exist in captivity.
Of course, 300 birds is still too few. Although they can live for up to 60 years, they only find their life partners and start breeding successfully between eight and fourteen years of age, and then only produce one youngster every two years. Although some birds are now breeding in the wild, they are heavily assisted. New eggs are removed by climbers to be artificially kept warm in a super-safe incubator, and an artificial dummy egg is left behind to fool the parents into thinking they’re doing what they’re meant to do. Just before these eggs hatch they are spirited back into the nest, and the parents take over.
Powerlines and lead bullet fragments left in deer carcases still kill them and nestlings have been dying after being fed with small bits of junk (bottle caps, PVC plastic shards, etc.). Condors survive outside zoos because conservationists feed them (stillborn cattle, mainly) and each free-flying bird is closely monitored – every single one is electronically tagged. Every few years each is recaptured and its tag batteries replaced. If a Condor seems too unafraid of people or is seen perching on powerlines, it is captured and taken back to live inside a cage, the value of its genes higher than that of its freedom; the wild California Condor is in some sense extinct.
I went down the Big Sur coast today (April 28, 2008) with Sayre Flannagan, a wildlife biologist with the Ventura Wildlife Society. We saw two nests and – amazingly – five condors. My bird-eyes are clearly still working despite chronic sleep deprivation because I saw the fourth bird through a tiny gap in the trees as we were whizzing by a small valley on Route 1. Most birds were too far away to photograph and, trust my luck, the only flying photograph-able one (Condor no. 222) decided to flap past with my camera unset-up and in shocking light.
A few blurry grab shots are better than nowt, so that’s what you’ve gowt.
Unwild or wild, cosseted or free, I’m very glad that some of these huge, bare-bulge faced birdies (their skin colour changes with emotion) still soar on the uprising air of the California coast. Thanks, Sayre, for a great day – and my first Cali Condors!
PS Midd Fellows will be pleased to learn that we passed within a quarter-mile of two (separate) just-hatched nestling Condors on our excursion. I won’t tell you where, though – I’ve been sworn to secrecy! The nest sites are just too vulnerable to talk about.
is an interesting story regarding Condors which raises the old question: How ‘objective’ can experts be when they’re paid by developers?