Condor makes a comeback

SUN JOURNAL

Revival: A 23-year, $35 million effort to save North America's largest bird from extinction has begun to produce encouraging results.

August 07, 2002|By David Kelly | David Kelly,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

LOS PADRES NATIONAL FOREST, Calif. - Deep in the wilderness, where plunging canyons meet towering sandstone pinnacles, the first in a new generation of California condors toddles around a small cave, flapping its stubby wings.

Across the valley, biologist Mike Barth peers through a telescope.

"My nightmare," he says, squinting in the sun, "is that chick will take its first flight up that canyon and right into a power line."

The chick, the first condor brooded and hatched in the wild in 18 years, represents the most significant breakthrough in the 23-year, $35 million effort to save North America's largest bird from extinction.

"My high point was the hatching of that chick, but it keeps me up at night," says Bruce Palmer, coordinator of the condor project for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "It's the yin and yang of the condor dilemma."

For the hundreds of biologists, volunteers and academics who have spent years trying to keep condors a living symbol of America's primordial past, success has often been followed by disaster and disappointment. But even those accustomed to expecting the worst are feeling a bit giddy these days.

After the first chick hatched in April, another was born in May and a third in June. California condors, once largely confined to rugged areas of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, now roam Big Sur and large swaths of Arizona, including the Grand Canyon. They have also alighted in the San Bernardino Mountains and soared with hang gliders over Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley.

Next month, six condors will be freed in Baja California, with later releases scheduled for New Mexico and Pinnacles National Monument near Salinas, Calif.

Meanwhile, the condor population has grown from a low of 22 birds to 205, with 44 eggs laid since January. Condors are bred in Boise, Idaho, and the Los Angeles and San Diego zoos. The goal is two populations of 150 birds each in California and Arizona by 2020.

"We have hit some critical landmarks," says Mike Mace, curator of birds at the San Diego Wild Animal Park and a member of the California Condor Recovery Team. "We rescued a species from extinction, and we have bred birds in captivity who are now raising their own offspring."

The California condor, weighing up to 25 pounds with wings stretching nearly 10 feet across, once shared a continent with woolly mammoths and saber-toothed cats.

Experts say they are intelligent, highly social and intensely curious animals, more akin to primates than birds. But these hulking, red-eyed vultures remained largely a mystery to scientists in the early days of the recovery program.

Scientists often misread behavior patterns and underestimated the threat of urban surroundings. Birds were released only to be recaptured after landing in schoolyards or on power poles. Others died of lead poisoning, electrocution and collisions.

In response, the hands-off approach was replaced by an intensive management style that left little to chance, creating a sort of avian welfare state where even the eggs were coddled.

Eggs are kept in state-of-the-art incubators. Chicks are monitored by hidden cameras in nesting boxes. Teams of biologists track the released condors' every move. Condors that get too close to humans are recaptured for behavior modification. Calf carcasses are supplied to keep them from eating poisoned carrion, and every six months the birds are tested for lead.

"As they recover, we can take them out of intensive care," says U.S. Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton. "We still don't have huge numbers, and we need to be careful. But all the trends now are positive."

Yet for all the recent successes, a self-sustaining condor population is nowhere in sight. And with no concentrated effort to replace lead bullets, which condors frequently ingest from carcasses, extinction would be certain without the avian nanny state.

Condors have never been plentiful, and as early as 1890 naturalists were calling it a "doomed bird."

By 1982, just a handful remained. Plans were made to bring the chicks and eggs into a captive breeding program at the Los Angeles and San Diego zoos. But when seven birds suddenly died and others showed high levels of lead in their blood, Fish and Wildlife decided to capture all the wild condors.

Using cannon-powered nets and pit traps, biologists began capturing the condors. One day in 1987, condor biologist Janet Hamber spotted Adult Condor 9, or AC9, the last wild condor. He was standing near a calf carcass. She considered not calling a trapper.

"I sat there and thought, `Nobody would ever know. How would they know?' Tomorrow was Easter Sunday. How would they get a crew together?" she asked herself. In the end, Hamber drove to a gas station and called the trapper, who arrived at 4:30 a.m.

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