After spending six months in its gritty nest cave on a sheer sandstone cliff, a California condor chick takes its first flight over the Los Padres National Forest. Uncertain of the wide open expanse of forest and scrubby chaparral this wilderness is known for, its first attempt at flying is a short one.
The new fledgling isn’t alone. Six other condor chicks have also successfully left their nests in the national forest this past fall, making 2008 the most successful breeding season to date for the Condor Recovery Program.
With these seven new condors and two other chicks in Arizona and Baja successfully fledging their nests, the wild population of condors now outnumbers those in captive breeding for the first time since reintroduction of the endangered birds began in 1992.
“This is another big step towards the recovery of the species,” said Mike Woodbridge, public relations officer for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service Condor Recovery Program. “Seven chicks in California are more than we’ve had in a season. The chicks are doing well, but we still have a long ways to go.”
The recovery plan for California condors calls for three distinct populations, each with at least 150 birds and 15 breeding pairs in California and Arizona. After the 2008 breeding season, the Recovery Program has reached an important milestone in the process. There are now 167 condors flying free in the wild, with 160 in the captive breeding program at zoos in Los Angeles and San Diego.
“This is an exciting time for the California condor recovery effort,” said Marc Weitzel, project leader for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge. “We’ve come a long way since the
Recovery Program began, and we still have a ways to go. We are making tremendous progress, with more condors in the wild than there have been in approximately 50 years.”
However, with that being said, condors still face threats from collisions with power lines, accidental and intentional shootings, and especially lead poisoning. Even though California Assemblyman Pedro Nava’s bill to remove lead ammunition from the condor’s historic range was signed off by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger a year ago and was implemented in July 2008, the threat remains.
Condors are checked for lead levels after hunting season concludes in late fall. Ingestion of lead has been the main culprit for condors, which doesn’t allow food stored in their crop (the pouch in their neck) to digest properly and, according to Woodbridge, several condors recently tested were found to have high levels of lead in their blood.
“We suspect lead was still being used because lead levels were still substantial within the condors tested,” he said. “As people learn more about the law, it will become less and less of a problem for the condors.”
Another concern regarding North America’s largest flying land bird is encouraging the scavenging raptors to forage on their own and not become dependent on food left out for them. Condors do not kill their food. They locate carcasses while soaring for hours on thermal updrafts, reaching speeds of up to 55 mph and altitudes of 15,000 feet. Condors can cover 100 to 150 miles a day with their impressive 9-foot-plus wingspans.
Since reintroduction began 17 years ago, field biologists have placed stillborn calves at feeding stations to encourage foraging behavior for the new wave of condors. Over time, those feeding stations have included remote locales like Lion Canyon on the Sierra Madre Ridge, the Wind Wolves Preserve and National Wildlife Refuges at Bitter Creek and Hopper Mountain complexes. The 2006 Day Fire and the 2007 Zaca Fire have also helped, burning old-growth chaparral in regions of the Los Padres National Forest that haven’t burned in 100 years. With their incredible vision, condors will be able to locate food more easily in the burn areas.
“We’re still leaving them supplemental feedings at various locations throughout their range,” continued Woodbridge. “We’re also encouraging them to feed on their own.”
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