Stately scavenger: The California condor's nine-foot wingspan once soared in the skies of the entire West Coast, until its population dwindled to just 22 birds in 1987. Today, more than 30 years after the recovery program officially was launched to save the endangered species, experts believe that Gymnogyps californianus is poised to succeed now more than ever. Explained program coordinator Jesse Grantham, "Our charge is to restore the species to a self-sustaining population."
The Great California Condor Comeback
After Decades of Costly Ups and Downs, the Endangered Species Finally Is Poised to Succeed
Thursday, January 7, 2010
Oh! There’s a condor flying!” shouts Michael Woodbridge, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. We’ve been sitting on a poison oak-covered cliff in the Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge for nearly an hour, focused on the rocky cave that hides a California condor nest across the canyon. “That’s the dad. He’s coming to check us out.”
Seconds later, the massive black bird does just that, rotating his golden-orange face on a fluffy collar of neck feathers to peer our way. With a stark white underbelly and unmistakable glider-like flying style, I realize-despite some false alarms in my years of exploring Los Padres National Forest-this is my first time ever seeing a California condor on the wing in the wild. When the mother bird suddenly emerges from the nest to join her partner in flight, soaring together in a graceful waltz across a dance floor of thermals, I finally start to comprehend the magnetic attraction of this severely endangered scavenger, how its nine-foot wingspan inspired so many Chumash legends, and why so many millions of dollars and countless hours have been spent to save it.
The breathtaking aerial display, however, only momentarily makes me forget the tremendous challenges that condors still face more than 30 years after the campaign to rescue them from near-extinction was launched. Even though the species-which bottomed out at 22 total birds in 1987-has rebounded to more than 360 birds today, the popular mindset remains divided on the revival’s true trajectory. Depending on one’s point of view, the California condor recovery program exists as either one of the brightest imaginable triumphs of an endangered species over all-but-certain extinction or the most misguided and expensive boondoggle in American history, requiring more than $5 million-or roughly $13,000 per bird-in annual costs. Condor optimists contend progress is steady and certain, but critics say the bird is just one of many species that’s outlived its time on this Earth, unable to adapt to modern development and unlikely to ever survive without human intervention.
For years, I found myself somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. The naturalist in me wanted to believe the program had the potential to return the iconic condor to the Golden State’s skies, but my inner realist constantly was discouraged by repeated reports of yet another dead bird. I was reluctant to pursue this article and afraid a deeper look would confirm my worst suspicions: that the human hand would forever be part of the condor’s future, its existence no longer possible without technology and constant care.
But after spending time with experts in condor country and listening to all sides about the ups and downs of the program, I’m happy to report that today, there is more hope for California condor recovery than ever before. More wild-born chicks are fledging, fewer birds are dying from lead poisoning, and young birds are learning from old birds where to forage for dead flesh, making the human-provided food increasingly supplemental. As the experts begin to better understand the curious ways of the condor and rethink past assumptions, the goal of three distinct populations-one captive, one wild in California, and one wild in Arizona, each with 150 birds and at least 15 breeding pairs-actually seems attainable. But the condor is not yet in the clear: lead poisoning persists, why parents feed their chicks microtrash remains a mystery, and it is unknown whether the remaining wildlands can produce sufficient carrion. On top of that, the politics of protection, which continue to alienate factions of the hunting community, have not led to the best long-term legislation. But for the first time in decades, almost everyone seems optimistic.
“We’ve certainly come a long way since the last wild bird was taken in,” said Jan Hamber, who’s been working with condors since January 1976 and helped trap that final bird on Easter Sunday of 1987. “All the problems for the condors are human-related. : So, ultimately, it rests on us. The birds themselves seem to do just fine.” Though it’s been an occasionally rough 34 years, Hamber, who runs the world’s most comprehensive condor database at the S.B. Museum of Natural History, said last month, “I hope that we will allow them to survive.”
By Paul Wellman
The Culture Cure
As a boy, Jesse Grantham would spend hours watching a nest full of robins outside his bedroom window. As an adult, he said he began refurbishing furniture, renovating homes, and restoring almost anything, because, “I like putting things back in the right order.” So it’s no wonder that Grantham finds himself working out of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Ventura office as the coordinator of the California Condor Recovery Program, which he returned to in 2004 after about 20 years of work for the Audubon Society in other parts of the country.
Grantham joined the program in 1979, when it was launched as a two-year study of how many condors existed and why their numbers were dwindling. Using binoculars and a camera, Grantham and his colleagues concluded that only 22 birds remained in the wild, making the species-which doesn’t start breeding until the age of six and then only produces about one egg every two years-as endangered as it gets. That triggered a very public debate about whether salvation by captivity was possible or if the species should simply go extinct with dignity. “At the time, it was pretty contentious,” said Grantham, who helped outfit some of the remaining birds with transmitters, also a debated technique. “There were a lot of people at each other’s throats,” he explained, though eventually the capture-the-condor program won out.
No one, however, could prove why condors were dying in the wild. “Food was not a problem, and they were reproducing,” recalled Grantham. But in 1984, Grantham and his mentor, Noel Snyder, found a dead condor in the Sierras with a lead bullet in its crop (the sack of skin that hangs below the beak). “There it is,” uttered Snyder, who knew that the wildlands of condor country are also hunting grounds for deer, bear, pigs, and other game. When hunters take home their killed meats, they often leave behind lead-contaminated gut piles, an easy feast for condors. But even small amounts of ingested lead can shut down their digestive systems, causing severe disability and often death. Once that Sierra condor was found, said Grantham, “all the evidence was there.” A campaign against lead ammunition culminated nearly a quarter-century later in October 2007 when the Ridley-Tree Condor Preservation Act was signed into law, banning hunters from using lead ammo throughout the bird’s California range.
Shortly after making the lead bullet discovery, Grantham left the condor project, but the captivity program continued. Formerly wild condors began laying their first captive eggs in 1988, and a reintroduction program was developed in the mountains of Los Padres National Forest. Initially, non-threatened Andean condors were brought in to help determine proper techniques. But in 1992, when the first California condors bred in captivity were released, they hit a “bumpy road,” according to Grantham. The young birds-who had been raised by condor puppets-tended to interact with humans, forage in dumpsters, and engage in otherwise self-destructive behavior.
Though the program-which eventually established additional flocks in Central California (Big Sur and the Pinnacles National Monument), Arizona, and Baja California-started to take on a “goofy” aura, Grantham kept watching from afar, believing the condor to be the smartest animal he’d ever worked with. “It’s a person trapped in the body of a bird,” he explained. “It just doesn’t have the opposable thumb.” Unfortunately, it was exactly those humanoid traits-a long learning curve, extremely social behavior, reliance on culture, etc.-that the program was ignoring. “Learned behavior and the condor, nobody knew how important it was,” said Grantham.
Bird doctor’s office: Twice a year, the Southern California condor flock gets rounded up on the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge to be physically inspected, vaccinated, and tested for lead. Overseeing it all is field supervisor Joseph Brandt (white shirt, above left), who explained, “If we didn’t test these birds, a lot more would probably be dying from lead.”
That’s all changed since Grantham returned to the condor program in 2004, thanks largely to the efforts of two individuals: the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Joseph Brandt, a former volunteer with the Big Sur condors who became the Southern California program’s field supervisor, and the Santa Barbara Zoo’s Estelle Sandhaus, a Georgia Tech PhD student who changed her dissertation’s focus from great pandas to the condor. In 2007, the duo started to monitor eggs, chicks, and their parents with a nest-guarding program that requires the year-round efforts of students, volunteers, and paid professionals to monitor the Southern California nests, of which there were four in 2007, five in 2008, and five more in 2009. Led by Brandt, who has the rock climbing experience required to scale the remote cliffs where condors roost, small teams of biologists and veterinarians enter the nests every 30 days to check on the welfare of eggs and chicks until they fledge. As the condors age, the monitoring continues via twice-annual checkups and the occasional supplemental feeding session.
Based on that steady, intimate contact, Brandt and Sandhaus have made two critical breakthroughs: One, they disproved the long-held theory that any human contact would “spoil” wild condors, clearing the way for the hands-on interactions that enable more wild chicks to survive; and two, they’ve shown that condor culture, such as when older birds teach younger ones where to find food or how to act properly in the wild, is critical to the species’ survival.
“There was no culture out there when they were first released,” Sandhaus explained one morning on the way to the Hopper Mountain, an outpost between Fillmore and Piru adjacent to the Sespe Condor Sanctuary, where most of the Southern California nests are located. “There are still some birds in captivity that have so much knowledge in their heads,” she said, explaining that such locked-up memories are the keys to condor success. “We’re excited to release that.”
Condors essentially are copycat foragers-when one bird finds food and disappears from the sky, the others follow-and their society revolves around feeding time, when young birds learn about hierarchy and proper behavior. Nearly 18 years after the first captive-bred condor was released into the wild, enough time has passed for them to rediscover their old foraging grounds-particularly areas of Tejon Ranch and the Tehachapi Range-and transmit that information to the next generation. The condor recovery team attracts condors to new territories by sporadic supplemental feedings, as well. “They’re very gregarious in that sense,” explained U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Woodbridge, who spends most of his time on the condor project. “By affecting what a few birds do, you can affect what the rest of the birds do.”
And it’s working. “They act like the original wild condors-they’re doing the exact same things that they were doing in the 1980s,” explained Grantham, who had witnessed the last condors in the wild before the captivity program began. “The condor is restoring the culture and traditions under which it evolved.”
By Paul Wellman
Watching them watch you: U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Michael Woodbridge (above) looks across a Hopper Mountain canyon toward a California condor nest with volunteers from the nest-guarding program. Minutes later, the father condor swooped into the canyon to check out the humans on his way to attend to his chick. “It’s like mountain climbing,” said Woodbridge of the steep hiking and endless patience required to monitor condors. “It’s a long slog and often tedious, but there are nice views at the top.”
It’s a sunny summer day at the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge, a 14,000-acre collection of rolling hills and golden grasslands in southwestern Kern County that offers views of both the San Joaquin Valley and Mt. Pinos. About 20 people are speaking in low voices beneath a blue tarp that’s attached to a sprawling flight pen, the temporary home for a couple dozen trapped condors about to get their semiannual checkups. The air reeks of death, as the condors’ carcass cravings tend to linger on their bodies, but the day is all about saving lives.
In order for the paid workers and volunteers-representatives from zoos, federal and state agencies, and nonprofit institutes-to process each condor safely, a curious contest begins between birds and humans that involves oversized butterfly nets, waving yellow brooms, and plenty of persistence. Once out of the pen, a condor is subject to a 15-minute barrage of tests conducted by as many as five people simultaneously-feathers, toes, and other body parts examined; West Nile Virus vaccine administered if needed; transmitters and tags reattached; blood samples taken for onsite lead poisoning analysis.
In charge is the dreadlocked Joseph Brandt, who calls for new towels like a surgeon requesting a scalpel and barks out handling tips to newbies. If the condor passes the lead test and appears healthy, it is weighed and freed, usually flapping just once or twice before rising like an elevator into the thermals above the Bitter Creek headwall. “This doesn’t happen so often that they’re used to it,” said Brandt, “but like nest entry, they accept it.”
Through these checkups, and the nest-guarding, and the occasional stillborn calves that are left as supplemental food, Brandt is focusing in on the most critical threats to the condors’ continued existence. The most obvious question is whether there’s enough food to support a wild population, as modern development and agriculture has displaced the large herds of roaming ungulates that historically provided a steady supply of rotting flesh. “It was a hard question to answer even a year or two ago,” Brandt said. But in the last six months, the reintroduced herds of tule elk and pronghorn antelope on the Carrizo Plain and Wind Wolves Preserve started thriving, not to mention the condors’ steady supply of meat from both the many cattle ranches-where an expected number of animals die from illness or calving-and the pig, bear, deer, and other large mammals that die naturally in the forest.
Future human development in the region does remain a threat, and condor supporters are steadfastly watching the proposed creation of two new large communities south of Bakersfield on Tejon Ranch, which has become a popular condor foraging spot. But as the bird expands its range, it is also making researchers reconsider what should be recognized as condor habitat. “Most of us think of habitat as plants and trees, but here’s a bird that’s totally dependent on the air for survival,” explained program coordinator Grantham. “Are there areas we don’t even realize are being lost because the birds were dependent upon them seasonally?” While he has no idea what sort of protective measures might result, Grantham currently is consulting with weather specialists to determine if and how seasonal airflow could be incorporated into the condor recovery program.
More immediately perplexing to Brandt, however, is the mystery of microtrash, the nickel- to quarter-sized pieces of glass, metal, plastic, and ceramic that almost all parent condors try to feed their young. Until the start of the nest-guarding program, microtrash was responsible for numerous wild chick deaths; from 2001-2006, for instance, only one of 17 wild-hatched Southern California condors was able to fledge, with microtrash either directly responsible or contributing to the demise of the other 16. Today, if a chick is found with microtrash in its crop, the nest entry team will try to “milk” it out of its esophagus. If that’s not successful, then the chick is taken by helicopter to the Los Angeles Zoo on a round-trip mission to have the trash surgically removed and the chick returned within 23 hours.
But microtrash really only impacts the young condors, so lead still rules as the number-one problem for condors of all ages. During both the Hopper Mountain nest entries and the Bitter Creek checkups, the condors are tested for lead, and those with elevated levels either are treated onsite with an injection that cleans the bloodstream or, if it surpasses 65 micrograms per deciliter, they’re whisked away to the Los Angeles Zoo for extended treatment. (That emergency procedure costs about $10,000, but the tab is mostly picked up by the zoo.) “If we didn’t test these birds,” said Brandt, “a lot more would probably be dying from lead.”
Although the ban on lead ammo hunting in California only went into effect two years ago, it’s already delivering. “The preliminary good news is that, here in Southern California, so far, the lead levels have been very low,” said Woodbridge in December, referring to data Brandt’s teams submitted for the end of 2009 checkup. “We might be on the verge of a real success that we can tout if this trend continues.” Unfortunately, Woodbridge also confirmed that two birds in the Central California region recently died from lead poisoning, so the struggle continues.
Once the tests are complete, the birds are set free, usually flapping just once or twice before rising on the thermals into the blue sky.