Condor recovery

Miracle, aka Condor 538, perches outside her nest in a redwood; her nestling is barely visible in the lower right of the cavity.

Miracle and Nomad have made history.

Ventana Wildlife Society biologists discovered July 6 that Condor 538 (Miracle) and Condor 574 (Nomad), both of whom were born in the wild, made a nest together this year in southern Big Sur. It is the first known nest of wild-born California condors in the state since 1985.

But that’s not all: They have a chick in their nest, the first second-generation wild-born condor in decades.

For VWS biologists, it’s cause for celebration – and evidence their reintroduction efforts, along with outreach to hunters and ranchers about the dangers lead bullets pose to condors, are working.

“It shows the condor is on the way to full recovery,” says VWS Executive Director Kelly Sorenson. “I’m thrilled.”

VWS senior wildlife biologist Joe Burnett was among those who set out on foot to spot the nest after being tipped off by the GPS tracker on Miracle. It required hiking several miles off-trail, which is no small feat in the steep, thick growth of Big Sur’s canyons.

“Getting to these spots, even with all this technology, is brutal,” he says, but adds that when he finally spotted the nest, occupied by two birds he watched grow up, it was worth it.

“When they were born it was a huge milestone, and for them to survive and raise their own, it’s twice as good.”

The federal government listed California condors as an endangered species in 1967, after decades of decline due to the birds eating carcasses left by hunters or ranchers that contained lead bullets. Lead from fragments of those bullets, which the condors might inadvertently eat while feeding, can paralyze the digestive systems of condors, which leads to starvation.

By 1982, only 22 remained in the wild, and over the next five years, biologists began collecting them so they could be bred in captivity and escape extinction.

VWS began releasing captive-bred condors in Big Sur in 1997, and in 2008, a chick from a wild-laid egg fledged in Big Sur for the first time in decades.

There are now 276 California condors in the wild, but Sorenson says it’s too early to declare victory: If VWS were to stop their releases, the lead mortality in the flock would still outpace population growth. The solution, he says, is continued releases and outreach to hunters and ranchers, who Sorenson says are increasingly receptive to the message about the dangers of lead bullets to wildlife. To that end, VWS has distributed 4,500 boxes of copper ammunition since 2012.

“It’s all going in the right direction,” Sorenson says. “It just takes time.”

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