The population of wild, free-flying condors in California recently reached a high of 100 birds, a far cry from 1987, when the wild population was teetering on the brink of extinction with only 14 condors struggling to survive in the rugged Santa Barbara backcountry.
“With 100 wild condors now in California, the California Condor Recovery Program has reached another milestone on the road to recovery for this iconic bird,” said Jesse Grantham, California Condor Program Co-ordinator. “This achievement is a testament to the work of our biologists in the field and the efforts of our public and private Recovery Program partners.”
Each fall, captive-bred, jet-black-colored, 1-year-old condors are released into the wild, primarily from two strategic sites, Pinnacles National Monument in Central California and Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge in the southern San Joaquin Valley. Captive breeding began for these Pleistocene Era scavengers in 1992 at the Los Angeles Zoo and the San Diego Wild Animal Park, the key to the survival of North America’s largest flying land bird.
After the juvenile condors are released, they typically stay close to the release site slowly exploring their new surroundings. That includes learning to fly while extending their impressive 9-foot wingspans in the swirling thermal updrafts and becoming integrated into the existing wild flock. Within five to six months, these young birds will follow the wild population throughout its historic range.
In addition to the release of captive-reared birds, the numbers have been enhanced by mature wild condors with their pumpkin-colored heads, which have been producing their own young since 2004. Sixteen young condors born and raised in the wild have joined the wild flock in California, the ultimate goal being two to three self-sustaining populations stretching from Baja California, Utah and Arizona to Northern and Southern California. Combined with the number of condors in captive breeding facilities, the entire population currently stands at 381.
“Of late, the population in Southern California is moving around in a triangular pattern between Hopper Mountain, Bitter Creek and Tejon Ranch,” said Michael Woodbridge, head of public affairs at Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge. “The current release sites are isolated, the foraging is very good, and we can keep an eye on them easier.
The sites are not as mountainous.”
Despite the high number of condors soaring across the Los Padres National Forest, they’re still susceptible to dangers such as fires, ingesting trash and especially lead poisoning. Woodbridge said the condor program is still working with hunters to use alternative ammunition. In 2008, California Assemblyman Pedro Nava created a bill to ban lead ammunition throughout the condor’s range. Eventually, it was signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. However, even with the ban, the Fish and Wildlife Service is still imploring hunters to use non-lead ammunition such as copper, tungsten and others.
After scavenging on a carcass littered with lead bullet fragments, condors struggle to digest their food. Meat is first stored in the crop, the pouch beneath their throats. The bullet fragments don’t allow for food to be broken down, and causes condors to choke and suffocate until they die. Hopefully, biologists can follow the Global Positioning Systems attached to condors’ wings in order to reach troubled condors. If rescued, biologists can treat a sick a condor by flushing its system with a solution.
“There’s still some grumbling going on. The situation isn’t perfect, but it is improving,” said Woodbridge of the lead bullet situation. “We’ve seen improvement in lead levels in the birds in Southern California, but levels are still higher in Northern California.”
For more information on the California Condor Recovery Program, call the Hopper Mountain NWR Complex at (805) 644-5185, or visit the Refuge Complex website at www.fws.gov/hoppermountain.