Birding Column: California Condor Rebound

Mathew Tekulsky
The Birdman of Bel Air
March 2, 2004

Shortly after I moved to Los Angeles in the late 1970s, I fell in with a group of ornithologists who were studying the California condor—an endangered species. At that time, there were about 25 condors left in the world.

Over the next few years, I was fortunate to see a number of wild condors flying overhead at the summit of Mount Pinos, about an hour north of Los Angeles and 8,831 feet (2,692 meters) in elevation—in the middle of nowhere.

One day in early fall of 1978 I spent an afternoon at the top of Mount Pinos with the National Audubon Society's condor naturalist, John Borneman, along with a group of condor-watchers. We saw five condors fly over us that day, sometimes as low as 60 feet (18 meters) or so. You simply cannot describe the excitement of seeing one of these primeval creatures soaring overhead with wingtips spread and those double triangles of white on the underwings plainly visible.

The condor flies faster than you think it will—often over 50 miles an hour (80 kilometers an hour)—and within seconds, this magnificent bird was well past us and approaching the horizon again. The one thing that crossed my mind at that time was how precious little space there was left for the condor.

That same year I attended a press conference at the Los Angeles Zoo featuring the only captive California condor at that time—Topatopa. There he was, in an outdoor aviary, behind a sign that explained that Gymnogyps californianus was an endangered animal, had a nine-foot (275-centimeter) wingspan, and weighed up to 26 pounds (12 kilograms).

I ran off a few photos of Topatopa, and I found him to be quite jovial. He had been kept in captivity since he had been found as a debilitated fledgling in 1966, so he was used to being around people. He posed for a close-up, and I snapped away.

In 1982 the first condor chick was taken from the wild as part of the California Condor Recovery Program conducted under the auspices of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1987 the last free-flying condor was brought into captivity—AC-9, "AC" standing for "adult condor." At that time the total number of California condors was 27.

Over the next five years the number of condors in captivity grew to over 50. In 1992 the first condors were released back into the wild. Since that year, more and more condors have been bred in captivity, and more and more condors have been released into the wild—at three major staging areas in the U.S. and one in Baja California, Mexico.

As of January 1, 2004, there were 82 condors flying free (38 in Arizona, 20 in southern California, 19 in central California, and 5 in Baja California) as well as 32 in field pens awaiting release at these various locations. Meanwhile, 101 condors remained in captivity—41 at the Peregrine Fund's World Center for Birds of Prey, 26 at the Los Angeles Zoo, 22 at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, and 12 at the Oregon Zoo—for a grand total of 215 California condors worldwide.

The released condors face a variety of dangers. Although a number of the birds have been killed by coyotes and eagles, the major threat to the bird's survival as a species is still due to human activities. The birds fly into power lines, get shot by sick people, and ingest chemicals of one kind or the other. Perhaps most common of all, the condors get lead poisoning by eating the fragments of spent bullets that hunters have left behind—either in the animals that they kill, or on the ground after the bullets exit the game.

Indeed, 17 of the 144 condors released since 1992 have contracted lead poisoning, resulting in four deaths. A grassroots organization called Project Gutpile, in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is mounting a campaign to encourage hunters to use lead-free bullets or to bury the remains of the animals that they kill, so that scavenging birds such as condors and eagles (along with other wildlife) will not contract lead poisoning and die.

Even if the California condor survives all of these dangers, we must make sure that this special bird has enough open space left in which to exist. It's the least we can do, don't you think?

Continued on Next Page >>


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