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Commentary by Dianne Erskine Hellrigel
| Sunday, Dec 22, 2013

DianneErskineHellrigelCalifornia condors, once on the brink of extinction, can now be seen soaring the skies above California, Arizona and northern Baja.

In prehistoric times, they ranged all across America. Their numbers were greatly reduced in the late Pleistocene epoch, along with the demise of many large mammals. The last remaining colony survived in the Western United States.

By 1982, there were only 22 condors in the wild, and all of them were in California. Of this meager number, only one breeding pair was left.

Without a captive breeding program, the condors would surely have been lost to us forever. Several dedicated individuals and organizations set out to capture the remaining 22. DNA testing was done, and it found that all of the condors were interrelated, but that there was DNA from three distinct clans.

Using this information, the condor breeding programs were successful. Today there are a few hundred living condors, and Santa Clarita has been blessed to have the first breeding pair in more than 60 years nesting in the local mountains.

Condors overflying SCV in May 2009 | Photos by Dianne Erskine Hellrigel

Condors overflying SCV in May 2009 | Photos by Dianne Erskine Hellrigel

The goal of the recovery programs is to have at least two wild populations with 150 individuals in each, with at least 15 breeding pairs. The colonies must be self-sustaining with a positive population increase.

The population is getting close to this goal, and biologists have high hopes for the future of the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus).

With a wing span of nearly 10 feet and weighing up to 31 pounds, they are the largest flying birds in North America. Condors are scavengers that feed primarily on carrion. They do not have a good sense of smell, so they locate carcasses with their keen eyesight. They prefer deer, cattle and sheep, but they will also eat rodents, rabbits, fish and other animals. There has been one case reported of a condor eating live mussels.

Condors will consume two to three pounds of meat at a time. They are able to go several days without food until they locate another carcass.

Researchers have found that condors bathe after a meal and spend hours grooming themselves and drying their feathers.

deh_condor0509dDespite their huge size, condors can travel up to 50 miles per hour, and up to 100 miles a day while searching for food. They can soar on thermals up to two miles high.

The best way to identify them in flight is to look at their under-wings. You will see a white, triangular pattern that is quite distinctive. Vultures might look similar in flight, to the novice, but they will not have these distinctive white feathers. All condors are also tagged with a number, and all have a transponder on their wings.

Condors can live 60 to 80 years in the wild without man’s negative influences. Unfortunately they succumb to micro-trash; lead bullets that are left behind in carrion and entrails; loss of habitat; illegal egg collection; high-transmission wires; eating poisoned carrion; and being shot. Education of the public is an important part of every condor recovery program.

Condors are monogamous and mate for life. They are sexually mature at about 5 years old. Juveniles under 3 will have grey-black beaks which turn ivory after age 3. Upon sexual maturity, their heads will turn pinkish-orange.

Condors do not build nests but prefer to build nests in caves, on rock ledges or in cavities in trees. Both male and female birds care for the chick. The chick will fledge at approximately 6 months, but can stay near the nesting site for up to a year.

deh_condor0509aCondors are among the most endangered birds in the world. They were placed on the endangered list in 1967. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service started the captive breeding program in conjunction with the Los Angeles Zoo and the San Diego Wild Animal Park, among other locations.

We should all be eternally grateful for their efforts with this incredible bird. The hope for their recovery lies in their capable hands.

The lives of the wild condors are in the hands of the caring or careless humans who inhabit the same areas as the condors. Teens and adults who break beer bottles along the roadside because they think it’s cool, or because they’re too lazy to take the bottle home for recycling, are the biggest problem. Countless environmentalists pick up this micro-trash, but it is almost impossible to keep up with the abuse of our wild lands. It takes only one shard of glass or one bottle cap to kill a condor.

Chicks hatched in the breeding programs are fed by condor puppets to help prevent human imprinting. They are trained to avoid landing on high-tension wires. And they are given proffered food to avoid lead poisoning from eating carrion tainted with lead bullets. Recently, a law was passed to outlaw the use of lead bullets. This is great news for the condor population.

In my many hours of observing the condors, I find they are extremely social birds. They spend a great deal of time together. They soar together, roost together and play together. They are also very curious birds. Several of them visit me whenever I am in their territory. One of them follows my car off of the mountain and soars over my head for hours while I am on the mountain.

One of them has landed near me, coming within a few feet, and “talking” to me. While they don’t have vocal cords, they do make hissing, growling and honking sounds.

Habitat is extremely important to the condors. They prefer mountainous areas, hillsides, gorges and cliffs that provide updrafts and good soaring conditions. California chaparral provides the condor with ample scavenging opportunities.

Unfortunately, California chaparral is one of the fastest disappearing habitats on Earth. It is important to realize that California chaparral is vital to our ecosystems and should be protected as much as the pine forests and pristine mountains. We need to be wiser in our development, keeping animal corridors and animal habitat requirements in mind before it is too late for all of the Earth’s creatures, including the condor.

 

MARK YOUR CALENDAR

The Community Hiking Club and Placerita Nature Center are offering a presentation about the California condor on Jan. 19 at 2 p.m. After the presentation, you will have an opportunity to join people in the audience and CHC Club members in picking up microtrash in condor territory just above Sand Canyon until about 4 p.m.

If you’d like to get on our email list for hikes, stewardship events and more, send email to zuliebear@aol.com.

 

Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel is executive director of the Community Hiking Club and president of the Santa Clara River Watershed Conservancy.

 

 

deh_condor0509b

 

 

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1 Comment

  1. Jenny says:

    Watching the birds from a distance is a great and life changing experience, however, any type of personal relationship with a bird could result in the end of its time in the wild or even worse. It’s great to have such a great supporter of the program and to that I am thankful for the article.

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