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Take a Hike | Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel
| Sunday, Nov 16, 2014

DianneErskineHellrigelThe California condors are critically endangered. Although biologists have made huge gains in the condor population, they remain critically endangered.

Historically, flocks of condors soared all across America from California to New York, from the far north into Baja. Today they inhabit coastal California and parts of Arizona.

In 1970 their numbers fell to 22, but there were only 10 breeding birds. Today their population is back up to 224 in the wild and 270 in captivity. This is due to the hard, dedicated work of the biologists at the Condor Breeding Centers at the L.A. Zoo, the San Diego Zoo, and several other locations including Hopper Canyon and the Ventana Wilderness. Since 1992, condors have been reintroduced into the wild.

California condors are the largest flying birds in North America. Their wingspan can stretch 10 feet across. Their body size is 3.5 to 4.5 feet, and they can weigh from 18 to 31 pounds.

Without man, their average lifespan is 60 years. They glide on air currents up to 15,000 feet high and have amazing visual acuity. Since they feed on carrion and have no sense of smell, eyesight is extremely important.

condors2Condors have no natural predators. And yet, they are having difficulty trying to survive in a harsh, man-made environment.

Man is the only creature posing a threat to condors. There are many reasons for their decline, beginning with the loss of mega-fauna, which would provide plenty of food for condors across the U.S. The current reasons for decline are all man-made including loss of habitat, power lines (which electrocute the condors), lead bullets and pellets which cause lead poisoning when they are ingested, glass and other micro-trash left behind in the forest that the condors can ingest, and one person – I am being nice, calling him a person – who recently shot three condors at point-blank range.

Loss of habitat is of grave concern for the condors. With every housing tract, with every fire, with every shopping center, there are fewer areas for the condors to live and breed. Saving some of the prime habitat areas for condors is important. These areas, when possible, should be put into “wilderness” to help save this species that we have treated so poorly.

Another problem is that condors fly on wind currents. These canyon and mountainous areas are also the prime areas for wind turbines that are being considered for renewable energy. We need to be wise when we consider these areas and take into consideration current flight paths of the condor.

condors3Power lines have been another concern for condors, but the brilliant condor biologists have come up with a scheme to help them identify the dangers of power lines. They invented “Condor School.” Every condor must attend and graduate. The condor is put into a large cage with a tree and something that resembles a power tower with lines. When the condor flies into the tree, all is well. When the condor flies onto the lines or onto the power tower, he is given an electrical shock by the attending technician. Yikes. The condor flies off of the offending tower and back to the tree where all is well. It takes only a couple of zaps and the condor has learned his lesson: Don’t go near those power lines.

The biologists were certainly thinking outside the box when they came up with this one.

Lead bullets and pellets were recently outlawed in California. It is illegal to use them. However, most hunters have this ammo in their stash and will probably continue to use it until it’s gone. So, lead will continue to pose a problem for the condors for years to come.

deadcondorWhen hunters shoot an animal, they generally dress the animal on the spot and then cart the carcass out, leaving the entrails in the forest. The condors come by and do their job, cleaning it up. Unfortunately, the lead bullets and pellets are left behind with the entrails, and the condor gets lead poisoning, which is often fatal.

If you hunt, please do not use lead ammo. If you refuse to obey the law and use lead, please fish it out of the carcass and take it home with you to discard. Please don’t contribute to another condor death. It takes years to raise a new condor, 3 to 6 years before they mate, and if their lives are cut short by one of man’s evil deeds, you lose another generation of birds.

Micro-trash is one of the biggest problems. Micro-trash is defined as small bits of trash left behind by man in the forest. Shards of glass, pop tops, nails, screws, staples, bits of metal, glass, pottery, bullet casings, soda bottle caps and bits of plastic are all examples of micro-trash.

Sometimes target shooters will collect bottles (or drink beer from bottles) and then shoot them instead of paper targets. They leave behind thousands of shards of glass and bottle caps that the condors find and eat. Condors don’t know they are eating glass. They pick it up, weigh it, and think it is edible bone. Brown glass equals old bone, green glass is viewed as bone that has been exposed to water and has moss growing on it, and clear or white glass is new bone – all of which would be perfectly edible for the condor. They eat it and die, or they take it back to their nests and feed it to their chick which then dies.

The other problem is irresponsible people who go up into the forest and drink, then toss and break their bottles rather than taking them home to recycle them. Micro-trash has claimed more condor lives than I can keep track of. We need everyone’s help to keep micro-trash out of the forest. The Community Hiking Club’s Stewardship Group has removed more than 5,000 pounds of micro-trash from the forest just up above Sand Canyon.

Stupid people who shoot condors have not been a major problem. However, condors are curious creatures, and not having any natural predators, they are not afraid of anything. Therefore, when they see a human on a high cliff in the forest, they might just land close by to get a better look. This is what happened when the three condors were shot at close range.

Unless people are educated, this is likely to happen again. I would endorse stiffer penalties for people who shoot, kill or disturb any endangered animal. I think public humiliation might also be a deterrent.

condors1While working in condor territory, the condors used to come sit with us and watch us clean up. It was a wonderful feeling to be able to communicate with them and observe them up close. After the shooting of the three condors, we began “hazing” them, or scaring them away, to try to deter them from becoming too friendly with humans. It is sad that we have to do this because of one “person.”

What can you do? You can pick up trash when you see it on a trail. You can stop littering. You can educate others about the danger of litter. If you are target practicing, use a target instead of bottles or cans, and pick up your bullet casings when you are done. You can join in a micro-trash clean up and improve the situation in the area where you live. You can make sure every can and bottle you purchase is recycled. Teach your children about the dangers of micro-trash.

If you’re having remodeling work done on your house and you’re paying someone to take away the refuse, ask for the dump receipt. This will prevent them from pocketing the funds meant for the dump, then illegally dumping your refuse in the forest. (The Community Hiking Club picks up three to four truckloads per week of household trash and construction trash that is dumped in the forest.)

If you would like to have a 1-hour presentation about condors at your school, club or service organization, contact the Community Hiking Club at communityhikingclub.org or zuliebear@aol.com.

There is some good news about the condors. Santa Clarita now has 20 condors that come for a visit. It has been 60 years since the forest above our city was condor habitat and a breeding area. The greatest surprise came this year when a male and female condor chose to move into Sand Canyon and were successfully able to produce a little fledgling. With these birds returning to Santa Clarita, we are hopeful they will bring more condors to the neighborhood.

Keep your eyes peeled for birds overhead that look like mini-planes. You just might see a mighty condor in flight.

 

Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel is executive director of the Community Hiking Club and president of the Santa Clara River Watershed Conservancy. If you’d like to be part of the solution, join the Community Hiking Club’s Stewardship Committee. Contact Dianne through communityhikingclub.org or at zuliebear@aol.com.

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2 Comments

  1. Thank you for this article, I really enjoyed it and sharing it with my 7 year old bird lover.

  2. Cynthia says:

    We have several condors in the West Monroe, Louisiana area. We can see them daily. I even have one that has seemed to decide that I was a “good” human”. Every time she sees me outside she will come down to say “good morning/afternoon.” When she calls, I will stop and speak to her. She never lands anymore but did in the beginning. She now has a flock that she is part of. I truly enjoy my birds–especially my personal friend.
    PLEASE do not feed them as they will lose the hunting instinct as has happened in the one Florida town. Please let them do their job of cleaning up the earth of dead animals.

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