California condor

Condor 606 in flight at Pinnacles National Park in April.

Contributed by John Lindsey

Thirty years ago, in April 1987, the last wild California condor was captured. One of the most endangered species on Earth, their total population had dwindled to just 27 birds, and all housed in two captive breeding facilities at the Los Angeles Zoo and San Diego Wild Animal Park. These New World vultures are North America’s largest flying land bird, with a wingspan of more than 9 feet.

The cause of this decline was primarily exposure to lead caused by ammunition fragments in carcasses they eat. This and other threats such as thin-shelled eggs — the same condition that caused the rapid decrease in the number of bald eagles and peregrine falcons nearly made them a memory. When birds ingest prey contaminated by DDE, a metabolite of DDT, it prevents normal calcium deposition during eggshell formation, resulting in thin-shelled eggs which became susceptible to breakage during incubation.

At the time, a lot of ornithologists thought the condor would follow in the footsteps of the passenger pigeon and go extinct. Biologist and many others hoped that by raising condors in captivity and later releasing them into the wild, they could give this species a second chance. Thankfully, as time went on, the captive condor program worked and now produced as many as 20 chicks a year, which is amazing since female condors only lay one egg per nesting attempt every 1 to 2 years.

Through the tireless work of dedicated naturalist, the total world population of California condors increased to 446 as of 2016 with a wild population of 276 and a captive population 170, which continue to produce chicks. One-hundred sixty-six live wild in Central and Southern California, 76 call Arizona and Utah their home and 34 are thriving in Baja California.

According to the Pinnacles National Park website the park currently co-manages 86 wild condors with the Ventana Wildlife Society. The Pinnacles condors have commingled with the condors in the Big Sur and have effectively become one Central California flock. These birds do not migrate, but their territory has been expanding over the years. They’ve been seen as far north as Livermore in the Bay Area and as far south as Santa Barbara County. I have seen them flying over the Point Buchon trail near Montana de Oro State Park, recognizable by numbered tags on their wings.

Condors have a mysterious ability to find thermals or spirals of the wind which can carry them thousands of feet into the sky without a single flap of their enormous wings. When the weather turns cold, these birds raise their neck feathers like a turtleneck sweater to keep warm. Believe it or not, if it gets too hot, condors and other vultures will urinate on one of their legs. As the water in the urine evaporates like a swamp cooler, it cools the blood circulating in the leg, which drops the condor’s body temperature. Needless to say, because of this type of cooling and since they eat carrion, condors bathe frequently. It’s believed that condors can live to be 60 years old. However, none of the condors now alive are older than 40.

While at Pinnacles National Park in April, I took photographs of Condor 606 harassed by a peregrine falcon. According to the park’s website "606 is male with a past link to the Central Coast and was laid by Big Sur condors 168 and 208. Due to research conducted at the time, his egg was swapped with a zoo-laid egg and hatched at the Los Angeles Zoo on April 22, 2011. After being released on Jan. 29, 2013, he made the condor biologists' job stress-free by safely perching in a tree and finding food on his first day. He has quickly integrated into the flock since then, making regular flights to and from Pinnacles and Big Sur."

John Lindsey is Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s Diablo Canyon Power Plant marine meteorologist and a media relations representative.

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