Natural Perspectives: The saga of the condor

At the end of the last Ice Age, California condors ranged eastward from the California coast all the way to Texas, Florida and even New York.

But by 1800, the range of the condor population had shrunk considerably. The birds lived along the Pacific coast from British Columbia south to the mountains of Baja California, and eastward into Idaho, Utah and parts of Arizona.

The Gold Rush of 1849 hastened the decline of these magnificent birds. It turned out that the hollow shaft of their huge primary wing feathers held exactly 1 ounce of gold dust. Miners shot the birds for their feathers as a handy way to measure and carry their poke of dust. Condor wing feathers fetched the handsome price of $1 each during gold mining days, which made shooting condors highly profitable.

In 1890, James G. Cooper, founder of the Cooper Ornithological Society, wrote an article titled "A Doomed Bird." In the article he stated, "I can testify myself that from my first observation of it in California in 1855, I have seen fewer every year when I have been in localities the most suitable for them. There can be little doubt that unless protected, our great vulture is doomed to rapid extinction."

Cooper attributed the forecasted demise to poisoning for predator control, a decline in their food supply and shooting.

It wasn't until much later that the role of lead poisoning from rifle bullets was recognized as a primary cause of condor demise. Even if a bird managed to avoid being shot, it could become sick from eating carcasses or entrails that contained lead pellets. Human disturbance of nesting sites and the eggshell-thinning effect of DDT also contributed to the decline of the species.

By 1950, the condor population had fallen to about 150 birds. Numbers declined steadily during the 1960s and 1970s. By the early 1980s, the California condor population in the wild was down to a mere handful of birds. By 1986, you could count all the condors in the wild on one hand. Cooper's prediction seemed to be coming true.

A coalition of wildlife biologists and ornithologists made the controversial decision to capture the last five condors from the wild and set up a captive breeding program. One of the reasons this decision was controversial was that up until that time, there had been no successful breeding of condors in captivity.

The Zoological Society of San Diego, the Los Angeles Zoo, the Peregrine Fund and, more recently, the Oregon Zoo participated in this historic attempt to bring condors back from the brink of extinction. The last wild condor was captured in 1987.

Fortunately, the program was a success. The very next year, the San Diego Zoo succeeded in a captive breeding at its Wild Animal Park near Escondido. With techniques such as double and triple clutching (removing an egg from the nest so the mated pair would lay another egg) and artificial incubation of the eggs, the population slowly began to expand.

The hatchlings had to be reared using hand puppets that looked like condors. They were hand-reared because the parent birds would care for only one chick. The puppets were to prevent the condor chicks from imprinting on humans.

By 1992, the biologists were ready to release the first California condors back to the wild. They had already released and then recaptured Andean condors to gain information about how suitable the various release sites would be. They chose two sites in California, one on the Vermilion Cliffs by the Grand Canyon in Arizona and one in Baja. Those areas today have free-flying California condors.

The breeding program is proving successful. As of Sept. 30, there were 396 California condors, with 197 of them living in the wild. Others remain in the captive breeding programs at various locations.

Last week, Vic led his adult education natural history class from Irvine Valley College on a field trip to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park (formerly the Wild Animal Park). There, they received a special presentation on condors by zoo staff conservation education specialist Andy Schucker. Members of Vic's class got to hold a condor primary wing feather, see the live condors that are on display at Condor Ridge and observe a young Andean condor up close.

The last activity was using telemetry to track down some plush condor toys that had been outfitted with radio transmitters. Schucker hid the toys to test the tracking skills of the class and to demonstrate how biologists tracked the birds in the wild until just recently. Now condors are outfitted with satellite telemetry, and the biologists can monitor the birds from their offices.

We learned that one of the biggest problems facing condors in the wild today is microtrash. Bits of plastic, metal pull-tabs from aluminum cans and bottle caps cause problems for condor chicks. Parent birds traditionally picked up bits of bone and shell and fed them to the chicks to help build strong bones. But the parent birds have been feeding their young these bits of trash, which can cause starvation and death of the chicks.

To avoid the problem, parent birds are given training in how to distinguish microtrash from bone and shell. The trick is how to do this without interaction between humans and the birds.

Inventive biologists came up with the idea of an electrified platform that is placed where the birds are likely to visit. If the bird picks up microtrash, the platform gives it a mild electrical shock. Nothing happens if the bird chooses bone or shell. Mild electroshock has also been used to train the birds to avoid power lines and other hazards.

These birds are a highly managed population. They are all vaccinated against West Nile virus and are captured for regular veterinary exams. If they have trash in their gizzards or lead pellets in their tissues, they receive surgery to correct the problem.

It has been a long road to recovery for the California condors, but they're coming back. Vic and I feel privileged to have seen condors flying along the coast south of Monterey, in the Grand Canyon and at the Vermilion Cliffs.

If you would like to learn more about condors, we recommend the book "Introduction to the California Condor" by Noel F. R. Snyder and Helen A. Snyder, one of the California Natural History Guides series.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at

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