by Taryn Bushey
2020 was a devastating year for California wildfires. This year summer I had the privilege of getting to help out on one of these fires for three weeks working as an equipment driver for the Forest Service on the Sequoia Complex fires. When I heard about the California Condors that were killed in the Dolan Fire west of me, it hit home, having personally witnessed wildlife struggling both within a burn and throughout the aftermath of a high intensity fire such as those that commonly occur in California. While wildfires are not a major threat to the condor population, the disappearance of nine condors and death of two draws great attention to the vulnerability of this already threatened species.
The California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) is the largest land bird in North America with a wing span of 9-10 feet, standing 3 to 3.5 feet high. Adults, both female and male, are known for their unique appearance, donning a bald head of brightly colored pink to orange (as during breeding season), to light blue skin, long, sharp beak, white underwing linings, and the look as if they were wearing a black feather boa. Juveniles keep their black feathered heads and have less prominent white on their wings until they mature at the age of 5 to 7 years. Breeding pairs will stay together for successive seasons, however, will find a new partner if one is lost. Eggs are aqua-colored and measure 4-5” long, hatching after two months, and the chick staying with the parents for up to two years.
Their current range is along the coastal mountains of southern California, however reintroduction is occurring north of the LA basin, Big Sur area, Grand Canyon and Baja, California. They nest in caves in the mountains and cliffs, but forage in the foothills and grasslands of the San Joaquin Valley. You may find a California Condor roosting in large snags or rocky outcrops. Some Condors have been recorded to fly over 150 miles in one day in search of carrion to feed on in just one day! Unique to other birds of North America, they rarely flap their wings, holding them in a horizontal position and relying on thermal updrafts to carry them across the landscape. Condors are playful, social birds, and have even been caught playing chase, tug-of-war, and fetch!
Historically, Condor distribution spanned from coast to coast. With human settlement into the West, however, came too a reduction in food source, habitat disturbance, shooting and poisoning, and egg collecting. In more recent times, lead contamination from bullet fragments in carrion, collision with power lines, and environmental pollutants such as DDT have been a detriment to their remaining population, along with predation on eggs by ravens, which tend to follow growing human populations.
In 1967 the condor became a federally protected species, and by the 1970s only a few dozen wild condors remained. With the help of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a book published in the early 60s that shed light on the indiscriminate use of pesticides, their effect on condors has been reduced, but pollutants still remain an issue to this day. It wasn’t until 2007, however, that concerted efforts to address the lead contamination issue were put in place with the Ridley-Tree Condor Preservation Act. The purpose of the act was to create a “non-lead zone” throughout the condor’s habitat and eventual lead ban throughout the state of California. Full implementation of this law was achieved in July, 2019.
Since the 1970’s dire numbers, the condor has relied chiefly on the efforts of human intervention to rehabilitate the population. In the 1980’s, radio collars were placed on condors’ wings to gather vital information about the species. In April of 1987, the last remaining wild condor was captured, and the rehabilitation of the species relied entirely on human intervention by way of captive breeding programs. One interesting fact about the California Condor is that when an egg is removed from the nest, they will often lay a second, or even a third egg, a practice called “double clutching”. This technique has been used to spur increased reproduction in captivity. After valiant reintroduction efforts, the first free-flying condor nest was found in 2006, ironically, in the burned-out cavity of a Redwood tree. The California Condor population now sits around roughly 440 birds, 160 of which are free flying, thanks to the dedication of their stewards. We can only hope that these numbers continue to increase as the awareness of the condor’s plight results in action towards the inclusion of environmental protection and improvement.
You, too, can get involved in helping rebuild the California Condor population! There are many ways to help. Here are just a few.
ï Sign up for the Ventana Wildlife Society newsletter to get the latest updates on the Big Sur Sanctuary that burned in the Dolan Fire this summer. They are currently taking donations to rebuild the sanctuary, and a link for this can be found at the bottom of their web page www.ventanaws.org.
- Do your part by using non-lead ammunition for hunting, spread the word about lead contamination in condors and their habitat.
- Participate in litter clean up projects to reduce the chances of ingestion.
- Do not use poison to control unwanted pests on your property.
- Visit the Cornell Lab website to watch the Pole Canyon California Condor Nest Cam and learn more about this rare bird!