Twenty years ago, we nearly lost the California condor. When only 22 were left in the world, an intensive and controversial captive-breeding program began. The last wild bird was captured in 1987. Wildlife biologists freed the first captive-bred birds in 1992, and since then over 180 young birds have been liberated by state and nonprofit agencies in California, Arizona, and Baja, Mexico. Sixty-one of the released birds have died and 21 have been recaptured, but 102 birds now soar in the wild and 146 live in captivity, a dramatic comeback for a bird so close to extinction only two decades ago.
Near the Bay Area, the Salinas-based nonprofit Ventana Wilderness Society (VWS) has been releasing juvenile condors near Big Sur since 1997 and in Pinnacles National Monument since December 2003. A second Pinnacles release is scheduled for October, when six one-year-old condors will fly free from one of the park’s towering cliffs. As they awaited freedom on a netted ledge recently, the young birds got an unexpected visit from a Big Sur condor. “He found the release pen at Pinnacles and began hanging out there,” says Sheila Foster, spokesperson for VWS. Other birds from the Big Sur flock will likely follow, which will create more opportunities for birds to pair up and breed.
But the condor’s recovery remains tenuous. In the wild, the endangered birds have been plagued by many of the same threats that led to their previous decline. Biologists have figured how to train young condors to avoid some of the problems, such as electrocution by high-voltage power lines, but habitat loss, poaching, and lead poisoning from the ingestion of lead bullet fragments lodged in animal carcasses are still major problems. VWS, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the California Department of Fish and Game are working to find solutions to these threats, hazards that could prevent released condors from rebuilding a sustainable population on their own.
The public is welcome to attend the Pinnacles release on October 15, when biologists will remove the bird pen netting. For more information visit www.ventanaws.org.