Eight endangered California condors were released in the remote backcountry of the Los Padres National Forest on Tuesday, bringing to 13 the number of the giant vultures now soaring in Southern California skies.
As about 35 biologists, former researchers and others crowded behind spy scopes on a narrow mountain road, biologist Chris Barr crept behind the 30-by-60-foot box where the birds had been held for a week and removed the bars, biologists said.
Five minutes later, one of the 3-foot-tall, 18-month-old condors hopped out. No. 7 stretched its sleek black wings that spanned about nine feet, flapped several times and leaped into the sky.
At first, the bird stayed close, making a long, low pass at the box where its companions remained. But within minutes, the maiden flight had turned into a long, skillful soar, 500 feet above an awed audience, said Robert Mesta, coordinator for the Ventura-based Condor Recovery Program of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“He broke into the blue sky,” Mesta shouted as No. 7 gained altitude over the white sandstone formations of the Lion Canyon release site in Santa Barbara County. Moments later, another condor was soaring and a third was taking short, hopping flights, he said.
“These are great flights,” Mesta said. “We’ve never had flights like these before.”
Tuesday’s release, the fifth in the program, marked the beginning of a more successful phase for the Condor Recovery Program, a $15-million, 10-year effort to save the condors from extinction.
Three more releases are scheduled this year, including one in December at Lion Canyon, another at nearby Bear Trap and a third north of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Biologists are also working to arrange a fourth release site at Castle Crags in the Los Padres National Forest in eastern San Luis Obispo County.
The condor recovery program began after the population of the vultures that had populated the skies of North America since the Pleistocene Era had dropped to a low of 22. Biologists captured the last wild condor in 1987 in an effort to bring the population back from the brink of extinction.
There are now 104 California condors, including the 13 in the wild, three at a sort of preschool at Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge north of Fillmore, and the remaining population at breeding facilities at the Los Angeles and San Diego zoos and in Idaho.
The captive breeding is a success, biologists said. But there have been disappointments in the field. Of the 32 birds released since 1992, only 13 are free.
Four condors, three of them released in the Los Padres National Forest north of Fillmore, died after crashing into power lines and poles, and another died after eating antifreeze. Others were returned to the zoo after they became too curious about civilization, some landing on back yard fences in Santa Barbara, others perching near a burger joint in New Cuyama.
Another fell seriously ill after it was lured into a campground by some visitors who wanted to photograph themselves with the bird, biologists said. The visitors fed the animal popcorn and hot dogs, despite entreaties from rangers not to feed the animals.
All 13 of the scavenging birds now in the wild have undergone extensive aversion training to teach them to steer clear of power poles and people.
Biologists say the therapy, which included repeated shocks when they landed on simulated power poles as well as exercises reinforcing a fear of humans, was successful for the most part.
The birds released on Tuesday were nearly a year older than most condors when they are set free because they were held back to undergo aversion therapy.