Two young California condors, a female and a male, have joined the bird population at Pinnacles National Park.
The male (No. 837) left the aviary at the park Wednesday afternoon, said Rachel Wolstenholme, a biologist who manages the condor program at the park. The female (No. 825) had not left as of Friday night. It was the only condor release at the park this year, she said.
Biologists are tracking the birds, which have gps tracking devices and vinyl tag numbers attached.
Both birds are about 1 ½ years old. They were hatched and raised in captivity at the World Center for Birds of Prey, in Boise, Idaho.
The new condors were driven to Pinnacles National Park in September and placed in an aviary, covered with netting and situated in a closed area of the park.
“That gives them a chance to judge their environment and interact with the wild birds …,”Wolstenholme said. “They kind of have a chance to meet their new flock before their release.”
A door to the aviary is opened by a person inside a small building next to the aviary when it is decided new condors are ready for release. The person is hidden from view. This allows the birds to leave the aviary on their own accord, Wolstenholme explained.
The new condors joined a population of about 40 at Pinnacles National Park, which co-manages condors on the Central Coast with the Ventana Wildlife Society. There are about 90 condors living in the wild in the Central Coast area, Wolstenholme said. Condors fly back and forth between the two sites. The Pinnacles began managing wild California condors (Gymnogyps californianus) in 2003. The protected species is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The largest of these birds, known as New World vultures, were removed from the wild in 1987 to be bred in captivity.* The low population is attributed to loss of habitat, human trash, poaching, past use of DDT and lead poisoning. All the remaining wild birds (27) were captured. Captive breeding programs were set up at the Los Angeles Zoo and San Diego Wild Animal Park.
The first captive condor chick was hatched in 1988. By mid-1999 the population grew to 161 birds. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates there are about 446 wild condors today.
In the beginning of the captive breeding programs, young condor chicks were fed by a person using a hand puppet that looked like an adult condor. That’s no longer done, Wolstenholme said. These days, adult condors feed their young themselves, by regurgitating food.
California condors are the largest North American land bird, with a wingspan of 9.8 feet and a weight of up to 26 pounds. They reach adulthood at six to seven years and can live to be as old as 40. They feed on dead animals.
A staff of four full-time employees at the Pinnacles monitors the condors, with help from 10 to 15 volunteers and two interns. They use radio tracking to keep up with the birds, making sure they’re moving around and following up if any of the condors die.
Wolstenholme said condors are vulnerable to lead poisoning. In 2013, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 711, requiring the use of non-lead ammunition statewide for the taking of all game.
Condors prefer large carcasses such as seals, deer, wild boar or cattle. In the wild the birds can go a few days without eating. They are then capable of overeating to the point of being unable to lift off the ground.
“Sometimes they go missing,” Wolstenholme said. “We can’t locate their transmitter signal. The birds are very social. If they are missing more than 12 months we consider them as dead.”
Californian Condors are identified by a “studbook” number, which is assigned on their hatch date. This breeding registry helps keep track of each bird’s pedigree.
Wolstenholme, who has worked at Pinnacles since 2013, said the condor team appreciates hearing about sightings reported by condor watchers who record the birds’ tag numbers.For more information on the Central Coast condor programs visit the Pinnacles website at http://www.nps.gov/pinn/naturescience/condors.htm. The Ventana Wildlife Society website is http://www.ventanaws.org/species_condors/.
*NOTE: Correction made. Original story stated the condors were extinct in 1987. This was not accurate. The small remaining condor population was caught, removed from the wild and then bred in captivity.
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