Releasing condors into the wild

The North County Times, July 26, 2005

Hope takes wing in Baja

From eggs hatched in Escondido, California condors return to Mexican skies

Condor #321 takes off into freedom for the first time, Parque Sierra San Pedro Martir, Baja California.

Condor #321 takes off into freedom for the first time, Parque Sierra San Pedro Martir, Baja California.

PARQUE NACIONAL SIERRA SAN PEDRO MARTIR, Baja California —- Two hours after the gates keeping her imprisoned opened Tuesday morning, a California condor hopped toward the opening and tentatively peered her bald, black head out from a chain-link pen.

Thirty yards ahead, six adult condors poked, pulled at and plunged their own pink heads into a pair of calf carcasses chained atop a rock pile, a vast sloping valley of pines and limestone boulders in the distance.

On a hillside 200 yards away, a half-dozen researchers with the California Condor Recovery Project hid behind rocks, trees and mesh screens, whispering in quiet excitement, scribbling in pads and peering through binoculars.

At 12:44 p.m., condor No. 321 tasted freedom and flight for the first time, flapping her massive ebony wings just enough to clumsily perch on a nearby boulder.

“When I saw it was 321, the female, who had the guts to get out first, I say ‘Yeah!’ ” an ebullient Catalina Porras, a field biologist who lives at the condor team’s camp at the Mexican park year-round, would say later. “They all have a very promising future adapting to the wild.”

Two minutes later, Nos. 325 and 322 followed their cousin through the opened gate —- not far, but far enough to send the hopes of their human witnesses soaring.

A released California condor soars above Parque Sierra San Pedro Martir, Baja California.

A released California condor soars above Parque Sierra San Pedro Martir, Baja California. Photo from the Web

These three condors —- and No. 323, a male who took wing five hours later —- are the latest feathers in the cap of one of humanity’s most ambitious efforts on behalf of endangered species.

Hatched in the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park in March and April of 2004, the quartet released Tuesday brought the number of California condors born in captivity and released to the wild to 126. Toss in the other 160 California condors in zoos and research centers, and the species numbers a grand total of 283. When a population gets this small, every individual raised and released to the wild is a major step on the road back to recovery.

Back from the brink

That any California condors are alive today at all is a miracle of modern science —- and testimony to decades of hard work and millions of dollars in research funding.

The bird was listed in 1967 on the United States’ first official list of endangered species when its population was somewhere between 50 to 60 birds. In 1985, the wild population of California condors dropped to just nine.

(I collaborated with NCT artist Mark Thornhill on this graphic.)

(I collaborated with NCT artist Mark Thornhill on this graphic.)

Scientists pinned their precipitous decline largely on us. Along with the usual suspects of habitat destruction and poaching, condors died off from lead poisoning after eating animals killed with lead bullets, or from electrocution while perching on power poles and lines.

So in a highly controversial move, scientists captured every remaining wild condor. That severed the birds’ connection to traditions that stretched back to the Pleistocene Era, which ended about 10,000 years ago, when the condor’s range extended across much of North America.

Luckily, the gamble appears to be paying off. In 1988, the Wild Animal Park in Escondido welcomed the first California condor to be both conceived and hatched in captivity. In 1992, eight condors were released in Los Padres National Forest in Ventura County. In 1996, six were released near the Grand Canyon, at Vermillion Cliffs, Ariz. Scientists continue to track the birds by the radio transmitters and large numbers that are attached to their wings.

In 2000, scientists set free one of the original California condors that had been captured in the wild, and the next year, a female that had been hatched in the Wild Animal Park’s captive breeding program laid an egg in the wild in Arizona. Finally, in 2002 the first chick to successfully hatch in the wild since 1984 pecked through its shell in Ventura County.

That same year, the California condor recovery program crossed into Mexico. Here at this pristine park in the heart of Baja Norte, recovery team leader Mike Wallace, Ph.D., envisioned a perfect place to return the world’s largest vulture to the Mexican habitat in which they were last spotted in the 1970s. Tuesday’s released quartet brought the Baja flock up to 13 birds.

Not too wild at first

Wallace’s mission is to release the birds with minimal human contact while still preventing them from venturing too far from the safety of the remote park.

“We’re trying to manipulate the situation for their success,” said the 55-year-old Valley Center resident who leads the California Condor Recovery Team, a multinational, multi-agency effort on the birds’ behalf. More than any other single person, Wallace can be thanked for the California condor’s survival, developing in the 1980s the release methods, feeding puppets and radio-transmitter tags still used to track the condors today.

Mike Wallace, leader of the California Condor Recovery Team.

Mike Wallace, leader of the California Condor Recovery Team. Photo from San Diego Zoo's Website

But this scientist pushes still further —- in recent years he added hang-gliding to work-related skills such as daredevil rock- and tree-climbing to better understand the soaring birds’ skills.

“We’re still losing birds to lead poisoning —- those are some of our best birds,” Wallace said. “In a sense, we don’t want them to be condors right off the bat.”

Lead left in rotting meat is a lethal garnish. That’s why Wallace and his team keep feeding condors once they’re released in the wild —- less chance of losing young birds to bullet-ridden carcasses or mountain lions protective of their kills.

“Eighty percent of this whole project is carcass management,” Wallace said with a smile Monday night, while driving to the condor pens with a pair of stinking dead calves he bought from a Tijuana butcher.

Movement in the moonlight

What seemed an effortless return to the wild on Tuesday was preceded by great effort the night before. Wallace and his team of field biologists and interns do all of their direct work with the condors silently in the dark to minimize disturbance and to prevent the birds from viewing humans as harmless. But Monday night’s work was illuminated by a nearly full moon —- enough to reveal the hulking silhouettes of four adult, previously released condors in the trees above the pen, waiting for the next meal.

Condors rely heavily on eyesight much sharper than our own to communicate and learn. Before leaving their pens, the juvenile condors have spent several weeks watching and learning from the adults flying, landing and feeding in front of them.

Monday night, Wallace, field biologist Juan Vargas and intern Sergio Ancona hauled the rank calf carcasses down the slope and up a boulder pile —- fancy footwork on precarious perches with heavy, smelly cargo in the dark. A photographer from the Wild Animal Park hauled his gear into a tent camouflaged as a boulder.

Porras hoisted a cage into the pen, while Vargas and Wallace trapped a condor not ready for release and thrust him into the cage. The other four young birds nervously dodged the biologists, spreading their wings and hissing like angry cats —- condors lack vocal cords, so that’s as loud as they get. Vargas rigged a pulley system for the pen’s back door, which Ancona would open the next morning from a hidden compartment behind the pen.

Place in the pecking order

Tuesday morning, all nine California condors previously released in the Mexican park appeared and began tearing apart the calf carcasses or warily watching from atop nearby Jeffrey pines. When the juvenile newcomers hopped out of their cages and fluttered over to join the feeding frenzy, the adults, their pink heads covered in blackish blood, quickly put them in their place, pecking at the youngsters or charging at them with 9-foot wings outspread. Vultures circled overhead.

Eventually, the adult condors spread their wings and caught an updraft, circling into the air above the valley. The newly released youngsters would not reach the skies on their first day out of the pen —- they still have a lot to learn —- but that will come soon enough.

Their learning curve will likely be quicker than their predecessors, as they have more adults to learn from in the flock they have joined. Wallace plans to release a total of 20 condors in Baja, but after that, who knows? He said researchers have “no idea” how many condors could co-exist in the 170,000-acre Sierra San Pedro Martir park.

Hidden by trees and a screen on a nearby hillside, the Wild Animal Park's Yadira Galindo, left, and Mexican biologist Catalina Porras watch the young condors take their first tentative steps into freedom.

Hidden by trees and a screen on a nearby hillside, the Wild Animal Park's Yadira Galinda and Mexican biologist Catalina Porras watch the young condors take their first tentative steps toward freedom. Photo by Denis Devine

On the ground, the small team of biologists will keep tracking them with antennas and GPS coordinates, and a great deal of hope.

“There’s a lot of need here in Mexico for education and conservation,” said Porras, wiping the sweat from her brow Tuesday after a long day crouched in the sun, taking notes.

“I feel it’s a great opportunity for Mexican people to learn about what we have lost, and what we can have again,” she said. “Being part of a conservation program of a bird already extinct in Mexico is waking up people. We have the opportunity to help them, and we can do the same for other species.”


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