Thirty years ago, a bird native to California was on the brink of extinction. Known for its impressive size, the California condor has been the target of recovery efforts ever since. Now, as biologists prepare to release more birds into the wild in Kern County, the recovery program is gaining new momentum.
At the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge near Maricopa, two adult California condors are perching on what biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service call a flight pen. We’re standing on a hill, within a fenced enclosure, and in the center is a huge cage with nine condors inside. All but one of these vulture-like birds are juveniles. Their bald heads are black, not yet the reddish-pink that the adult condors sitting outside the pen have.
Steve Kirkland is the field coordinator for the Service’s Condor Recovery Program.
“The wingspan is nine and a half feet, which is almost as wide as a Volkswagen bug,” he says, describing the bird. “When they soar closely over your head, you can hear wind move through their feathers.”
The birds don’t have a distinct call because they’re don’t have vocal cords, but Kirkland says they can hiss, grunt, and make other guttural sounds.
Members from the Condor Recovery Program are at Bitter Creek to visit new condors that just arrived at the refuge from a hatchery in Idaho. Today, they’re attaching new ID tags and GPS units to the birds. In a few weeks, six of the birds at Bitter Creek will be released into the wild.
“Condors were at very very low numbers, in the early 1980s,” says Joseph Brandt. Brandt is the supervisory wildlife biologist with the program. He says that, at the time, there were only twenty-three condors in existence.
When the Condor Recovery Program began, all condors were brought into captive-breeding programs.
Decades later, biologists are now defining the final stages of recovery. Wild condor populations are growing, and they’re flying and nesting in areas they haven’t used in decades. Historic nesting areas of California condors include the foothills and mountains in what are now Fresno and Tulare counties. The birds would fly south into Kern and Ventura counties, and up the coast of California, creating a U-shaped range.
Condors have been introduced to the wild from Bitter Creek refuge and the Big Sur area, returning them directly to their coastal and southern historic nesting areas. Recently, biologists have noticed that condors are repopulating more areas in Central California.
Twenty years ago, this would not have been possible.
Today, the state hosts a population of 160 condors. Together with wild birds in Arizona and Mexico, the total population of California condors is around 440 birds.
Brandt says they don’t know what a healthy number of condors in the wild is, because condor populations have declined since humans settled in California.
Historic records show that California condors used to live throughout the state and Northwest. Even Lewis and Clark recorded seeing them during their expeditions.
“When Europeans came to the west they really had an impact on ecosystems” Brandt says. “One of those impacts affected the food sources of condors.”
Condors are scavengers that eat carrion. They will eat meat that died from natural causes or was killed. Brandt calls them “nature’s cleanup crew.” Activities like hunting and ranching can provide food for the birds; however, lead poisoning from consuming lead ammunition has been a prevalent cause of death for condors.
Brandt says that population modeling the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has done shows lead as a primary barrier to condors from becoming self-sustaining.
Part of the work of the Condor Recovery Project includes educating and reaching out to hunters and ranchers to make areas safer for condors to repopulate.
Jennifer Wesson with the Fresno Chaffee Zoo says that the Condor Recovery Program demonstrates the success of collaborating with these local players.
“Sometimes it’s an outreach that will save an animal,” Wesson says. She cites examples of pesticides that were thinning eggshells, and lead ammunition consumption by the birds. Wesson says reducing those inhibiting factors are a matter of education, outreach, and getting people to change their habits.
At Bitter Creek, a condor sitting on the flight pen spreads its wings, and takes off. In a few weeks, the newly GPS-tagged birds in the flight pen will join the wild population, and Brandt hopes for a successful transition.
“This is the recovery program, so our goal is to recover the species so we no longer need to manage the species as intensively,” Brandt says.
The largest flying bird in North America might someday sustain itself without humans, but it could be some time until then.
“We’re kind of at a point where we’re going to start defining what recovery would be for the condor,” Brandt says. “I think ten years from now, we’ll probably be a long way down that road in kind of understanding what the numbers and what recovery would look like, and also achieving recovery.”
With progress like that, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising to see a black bird with a nine-foot wingspan on the way into the mountains. And as recovery continues, maybe someday it can be expected.