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California Condors Are Back

Dear Bird Folks,

A number of years ago there was a big push to protect the California Condor, which was headed for extinction. I haven’t heard much about it lately. Were they able to save it?

– Jerome, Plymouth, MA


Good timing, Jerome,

In a few weeks my wife and I are flying out West to attend a trade show (and to take a break from our magnificent January weather). As usual, I’m also planning on doing some birding. This way I can accomplish two things at once. (Notice: I didn’t say, “Kill two birds with one stone.” That phrase is forbidden in my industry.) Before leaving I always make a wish list of birds that I’d like to see. Birds such as roadrunners and Vermilion Flycatchers are always on the list. In addition, I hope to see a “Wrentit,” a funky bird with an even funkier name. (Yes, it’s a real bird). I’ve never seen a Wrentit and it’s my goal-bird for the trip…or at least it was until you mentioned the California Condor. I totally forgot about the condor and the extreme effort that was made to save it from extinction. Duh! Now it’s on the top of my list. Sorry, Wrentit, maybe next time.

Here on Cape Cod we become excited whenever we see a large Osprey fly overhead, and well we should; after all, Ospreys are impressive birds. But just to give you an idea of how immense condors are, it would take nearly seven full-grown Ospreys to equal the weight of a single condor. And the wingspan? Forget about it. A condor’s wings are nearly double the length of an Osprey’s. Yup, they’re that big. While never really abundant, condor numbers plummeted when settlers began moving into California. The giant birds were easy targets for people who like to shoot stuff, and because the birds feed on carrion, they also became the unintentional victims of poison set out for coyotes. In more recent years, the main source of condor mortality has been the ingestion of lead shot. Rabbits, coyotes, deer and other creatures that were shot and not retrieved by hunters became meals for condors and other vultures. Unfortunately, many of the dead animals contained bullet fragments. If the condors ingest any of these fragments, they will eventually succumb to lead poisoning. In order to protect the birds, and to keep poisonous lead out of the ecosystem, the Feds banned the use of lead shot. Good news, right? Well, it was good news until last spring, when our new Interior Secretary reversed the ban. Sigh.

For most of the 20th Century the condor population continued to decline. By 1985 there were only ten wild California Condors left in the entire world. That’s all, just ten. The condors were ten measly birds away from joining the ranks of the Passenger Pigeon, the Wooly Mammoth and Blockbuster Video. Would the last few wild condors be able to produce enough chicks to keep the species viable? Probably not, since condors aren’t like rabbits or my Irish Catholic relatives; they reproduce very slowly. Also, they don’t breed until they are six years old, and females only lay one egg per year or so. Why just one egg? Before the guns and lead arrived, adult condors had no serious natural enemies, so a high rate of replacement wasn’t needed. They also have a life expectancy of sixty years. Thus, a single female could produce over thirty offspring in her lifetime. This was plenty to keep the species going, or at least it was until we screwed things up.

In a desperate effort to stave off extinction, the remaining ten birds were rounded up and put into a captive breeding program. This program was highly controversial since well-intentioned plans don’t always work. Just ask the Passenger Pigeon. As the huge flocks of Passenger Pigeons began to disappear, officials thought they could stem the decline by releasing birds bred in zoos. They were wrong. The birds needed the company of the massive flock in order to be stimulated to mate. Once captured, not even candles, soft rock and Godiva chocolate could put them in the mood. Fortunately, this didn’t turn out to be the case for condors. They didn’t seem to mind breeding in an enclosure and weren’t the least bit shy about mating in front of a bunch of lab coat-wearing researchers. (And all this time I’ve been wasting my money on Godiva chocolate.)

Now, thirty years later, the condor-breeding program seems to be a success, as birds raised in captivity are now regularly released into their natural habitat. Since 1987, the wild population of California Condors has gone from zero to 246…and counting. There are now at least twenty-two active condor nests, with many of them producing chicks. Also, an effort is being made to expand the birds’ range. In addition to California, separate populations have been established in the Arizona/Utah area and across the border in Sierra de San Pedro Martir National Park, Mexico. Yay, Mexico.

I’m glad you asked about condors, Jerome. Their recovery has been slow, but things look better today than they did in 1985. FYI: One of the best places to see condors is the Grand Canyon, so that’s where I’ll be heading in a few weeks. Just think, with one stop I’ll get to see the Grand Canyon, and if I’m lucky, a condor, too. It will be like killing two birds with…oops, I mean accomplishing two things at once. Whew! That was close.