California Condors Take Flight

© Chuck Graham

Decimated by hunting, egg collectors, loss of habitat and lead poisoning, North America’s largest land bird, the California condor, was until recently on the brink of extinction. There hasn’t been a condor born in the wild since 1984, but U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) biologists confirmed the first egg-laying by captive-bred condors took place in Ventura County’s Sespe Wilderness last June. Unfortunately, neither egg survived.

In 1987, the last remaining condors were placed in captive breeding facilities, and none were released until 1992. Today, there are 58 condors in the wild and another 125 in captivity, including 26 chicks hatched this year. One of the recovery program’s goals is to have 200 condors soaring in the wild. It’s a slow process, but the condors are well on their way to reestablishing a viable wild population.

"The first wild egg was not viable," says John Brooks of the California Condor Recovery Program. "The other egg was viable, but it had developmental problems." Condors typically lay only one egg per season, with the male assisting in incubation. But when one male mated with two females last season, it created confusion that left eggs exposed for long periods of time.

"It’s normal for first-time breeding attempts to be unsuccessful," says USFWS biologist Greg Austin. Rather than give up on the prospective parents, the recovery program replaced the two dead eggs with a placebo until a viable egg from the Los Angeles Zoo was nearly ready to be hatched. "This was a huge experiment," says Brooks. "If it had worked, it would have put the birds way ahead."

One of the females took to the new, developing egg, and it hatched two days after being placed in the cave. However, the female condor didn’t receive vital assistance from the male. The chick was left exposed when the female went foraging, and another adult condor found it, bit it twice on the neck and threw it from its nest. Although this was a setback, USFWS biologists are optimistic about the coming spring breeding season, which will feature three males and four females that are sexually mature. "We’ve witnessed many courtship flights among the breeding-age birds," says Austin.

© Chuck Graham

Condor biologists, says Brooks, are essentially navigating without a compass. "You can’t go to the library and look up how to raise wild condors," he says. "We’re writing the book as we go along."

According to Mike Spear, a USFWS operations manager, "The fact that captive-bred condors mated for the first time in the wild means we’re right on target with the goal of restoring this bird to its native habitat."