Six condor chicks spotted on Central Coast this year after population decline in 2020

But lead poisoning caused seven of this year’s nine condor deaths to date and is considered a top threat to the long endangered species.
1089. Photo courtesy of Ventana Wildlife Society.
California Condor at Pinnacles National Park. Photo courtesy of National Park Service.
California Condor at Pinnacles National Park. Photo courtesy of National Park Service.

The Central Coast condor population has brought six young birds into the flock this year to date, following a record loss in 2020, but lead poisoning remains a threat to the already endangered species.

Two chicks have been spotted at Pinnacles National Park and four in Monterey County, Kelly Sorenson, executive director of the Ventana Wildlife Society, said during the bird restoration nonprofit’s monthly Zoom Condor Chat event in June. Biologists at Pinnacles have entered cliff nests and done health checks on the two chicks there. Birds managed by the Ventana Wildlife Society are nesting in inaccessible redwood trees in Monterey County. 

Last year, nine condors were lost in the Dolan Fire that burned over 124,000 acres in the Big Sur area. According to the nonprofit, 24 of the California Central Coast birds died last year, and 12 have died this year with seven 2021 deaths from lead poisoning. There have been three deaths since July 1 and causes of death have not yet been determined. 

The New World vultures have faced endangerment over their native range in the western United States because of habitat destruction and in more recent years, environmental hazards such as lead in the bullets used to shoot animals on private property. 

They’re among the largest flying birds in the world with wing spans up to nine feet, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiated a recovery program in 1992 when the wild condor population had fallen to 22 birds. Today several agencies are involved, including national parks, the Los Angeles and Oakland zoos, along with nonprofits. Pinnacles National Park and Ventana Wildlife Society manage much of the California condor population.

For the population as a whole, lead toxicity remains the leading cause of death. Wildfires can reduce the condor population, but the loss of nine birds last year to one fire was unusual. 

U.S Fish and Wildlife lists other causes of death as ingestion of trash, including waste that adult birds feed their chicks, and anticoagulants found in rodent poisoning. Condors absorb the poison when feeding on animal carcasses. 

The current Central Coast population stands at 82 compared to a global wild population of 318 and 171 in captivity. 

Mike Stake of the Ventana Wildlife Society said that before 2019 the number of births had overtaken the number of deaths, which he described as “very encouraging.” He added that with efforts to prevent lead in the environment, “we will get back to that point.” 

Of the six condor pairs that successfully mated, two nested at Pinnacles: The two other pairs are Ventana birds. One female condor died earlier this month but it is believed that a male can raise the chick himself. 

Chicks hatched in 2021 come from two male condors from Pinnacles and four managed by the Ventana group. Three female birds come from Pinnacles and the other three are managed by the Ventana group.

Alacia Welch, Condor Recovery Program manager at Pinnacles, said both her park and Ventana Wildlife Society expect to release more birds raised in captivity into the Central Coast population in the fall. 

Ventana Wildlife Society staff members said in June they expect that the two juveniles who were rescued from the Dolan Fire as chicks and moved to the Los Angeles Zoo will be released in Monterey County in the fall. (See footage of the Dolan Fire and condor here).

Some of the Ventana birds released at the wildlife society’s San Simeon site are flying farther south than before. For example, Condor 974, a code number assigned for tracking purposes, has been documented in Santa Barbara. 

The Central Coast population may eventually blend with the population of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge condor program in Kern County and become one group. Birds released from the Kern County facility have also been documented in Santa Barbara.


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Carmel de Bertaut

Carmel has a BA in Natural Sciences/Biodiversity Stewardship from San Jose State University and an AA in Communications Studies from West Valley Community College. She reports on science and the environment, arts and human interest pieces. Carmel has worked in the ecological and communication fields and is an avid creative writer and hiker. She has been reporting for BenitoLink since May, 2018 and covers Science and the Environment and Arts and Culture.