Return Of The Condor
The endangered birds come home.
Thursday, November 5, 1998
Something spectacular is happening in the skies over Monterey County. On Wednesday, six young California condors will join two older birds already in the Ventana Wilderness Sanctuary, to begin preparation for their January 1999 release into the rugged Santa Lucia mountains. Seven of these extraordinary endangered animals will soon unite with five other successfully translocated birds in what was once a condor neighborhood on the Central Coast.
Since the birds'' near-brush with extinction, tremendous effort has been concentrated on restoring the condor to California. Once commonly found soaring 100-10,000 feet above the earth, the condors diminished to a population of only 21 individuals in 1982, despite both a federal listing as an endangered species in 1967 and a rigorous captive breeding and recovery plan instituted in 1975.
Something drastic needed to be done, and on Easter Sunday, 1987, the last wild condor was taken into captivity. According to the California Condor Recovery Program, this marked the first time since the Pleistocene era that condors no longer soared over North America.
Today, 150 condors are living, with 35 of them released to the wild. Although the program is a collaborative inter-agency effort, it''s the Ventana Wilderness Sanctuary, and their members and supporters that have made the local release program possible.
Founded 21 years ago to restore endangered species to the Central Coast, the Ventana Wilderness Sanctuary has held true to its course. The Sanctuary is best known for its achievements with bald eagles and executive director Jim Davis, boasts that from San Francisco to Santa Barbara, the eagle population is considered completely restored. Saving the condor is his latest battle, and one that he is determined to win. And he is not alone.
Lacking the popular mythology of the bald eagle, the condor, while unknown to many, holds a special significance among environmentalists. To Ventana Wilderness Sanctuary Wildlife Coordinator Kelly Sorenson, the condor is the symbol of conservation.
"They are an animal that most represents wilderness and they were put on the very first endangered species list. If we give up on the condor, we''ve given up on conservation.
"With another decade of effort we will be able to restore a self-sustaining population of condors to their historic range," he continues.
Threats still remain to that goal, including recent reports indicating lead poisoning of condors due to the ingestion of lead bullets found in game left for dead by careless hunters.
"In the last four months three condors have suffered from lead toxicity," says Sorenson. Fortunately, all the birds were treated and re-released into the wild.
Although scavengers biologically speaking, condors perform a vital function by clearing the land of diseased carcasses, and thus contribute to the well being of our wilderness.
"They are unique in their abilities," says Davis, "We don''t know enough yet, but many of their patterns resemble humans''. We believe they mate for life--a life that spans up to 50 years. They care for their young for up to two years and they even have a five year ''teen-age'' exploration and ''get-into-trouble'' time."
And they love to socialize. Most of the condors'' behaviors are learned by interacting with their parents and their peers. In fact, this discovery was the key to the Sanctuary''s first successful release. On the first attempt, all four of the birds had to be returned to captivity since the condors were not well-socialized with one another and would instead seek out humans.
"They exhibited a level of comfort with humans that was unnatural for the species," Davis remembers.
This realization gave Sorenson an idea. Presently, there are many more chicks than adults, due to a very successful breeding program. The need for chick/adult interplay was becoming clear. The condor puppets used to feed and stimulate the chicks were not adequate instructors. Hence, Sorenson concluded that a 25-by-40-foot flight pen for an adult condor could be placed next to the youngsters'' housing after relocation. For a few months while the chicks grew and strengthened their wings, they could keep a close watch on their ''mentor'' and learn from his actions. That time would also allow the birds to communicate visually, as they must do in the wild.
Davis and Sorenson believe that the mentor program did indeed help the chicks learn the skills vital for their survival in the wild and was instrumental to the success of the second transfer.
So, with both failures and triumphs behind them, the Ventana Wilderness team eagerly awaits the next release. cw