ENDANGERED SPECIES/ESSAY

We must safeguard the web of life and care about the other living species that we share this planet with. Pygmy tarsiers eat and host bugs that we’ve seen at home — insects, spiders, lizards, bedbugs, lice, fleas, roundworms, and tapeworms. The vaquitas are preyed upon by large sharks and killer whales, keeping them away from us. But only 10 vaquitas are left and in their absence, the diet of sharks and whales may change. A tiger in the wild indicates that the forest it inhabits is healthy and diverse. As of now, there are 3,900 tigers in the wild globally, and more than twice as many (8,000) in captivity. By protecting the web of life, we build a kinder world for everyone.

All California Condors (Gymnogyps californianus) were rescued in 1987 when only 22-27 birds were left in the wild. After caring and breeding them in captivity at the San Diego Zoo, a few were rewilded. Scientists noted that despite the male tendency to stay with one mate all his life, on rare occasions they’d flirt until the Condor’s “wife” catches them and brings her mate back home.

Virgin births are possible in “married” females. Two virgin-born chicks lived but were sickly. One died after two years, and the other died at age seven. California Condors can live for 60 years.

These birds aren’t migratory, they roost. Neither do they kill their own carrion. It dies from natural causes (illness, old age), was killed by humans (bullets, roadkill), or other animals. The California Condor stands by its prey and waits in line until they get their turn. Smelly, bacterial leftovers don’t faze them, they still eat.

Rescued

In 1987, California Condors totaled 27. The Los Angeles Zoo and the San Diego Wild Animal Park raised them in captivity to preserve genetic diversity, which is necessary for strong, healthy chicks.

Today, after 35 years, there are 300 California Condors in the wild, and some 200 in captivity, totaling 500. They’re all descendants of the 27 rescued birds.

Another milestone – the 1,000th California Condor chick was successfully born in Zion National Park, Utah. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) ranks the California Condor as Critically Endangered.

The California Condor’s story illustrates why humans must commit to rescuing and rewilding animals that are near extinction. It’s possible to do so with detailed data collected, patience, hard work, and financial support to grow their numbers and rewild them.

Breeding

A female breeds from ages 6-8, while the male mates from ages 7-9. Courtship includes synchronous pair flights, self-display by extending his wings, mutual grooming, mounting, and copulation. Then they’ll survey nest options. The female chooses their home.

Usually the male mates for life, but whether it’s intrinsic or adapted behavior from near extinction is unknown. Chicks are fed regurgitated food.

A female births a new chick every two years, which is too slow when breeding is vital to growing a species, especially one nearing extinction.

Pregnancy, birth, and care

The female California Condor is pregnant for 53-60 days before laying a pale, blue-green, or creamy to white-hued egg four inches long. Nesting takes 163-180 days before hatching. Parents take turns laying the egg. The hatchling is white, open-eyed, and totally dependent on its mother.

Both parents care for the chick for 3-4 weeks. Then they leave it alone, first for three days, then gradually for longer periods of time. The chick flies after six months and becomes a juvenile at age 5-6 years, by which time its bald dark-gray head will turn orange-red.

Flirting

On rare occasions, a mated California condor will flirt by “extra-pair courtship”. Sometimes the female flirts back by displaying herself. But beware its primary mate, who’ll disrupt the courtship and bring her errant mate home.

It’s possible that social interplay began with new, rewilded birds, maybe because the philanderers lack genetic diversity, or monogamy was adopted when their population fell.

Virgin births

One day San Diego Zoo researchers discovered that two female California Condors had virgin births, despite having mates. The two resulting chicks were weak. One died after two years, the other after seven years. A California Condor’s lifespan can reach 60 years. Researchers assumed this was the first case of asexual reproduction in any bird species where the female had a mate. Scientists also learned that by removing an egg from the nest, the female will lay another one, and possibly a third.

Another option was to replace the egg with a fake one so they could monitor the embryo. Just before it would hatch, they returned the egg to its mother.

California Condor history, habits

The California Condor’s ancestor, Teratornis incredibilis, dates 40,000 years back to the Pleistocene era. The T. incredibilis’ wingspan was 17 ft. However, its population fell with the extinction of its food like mastodons, camels, and giant ground sloths.

The California Condor, its descendant, has a 9.8 wingspan and reported 11 and 13 ft. spans, making it the largest North American flying bird. It soars 1500 ft. high, then glides on air currents for an hour. But it prefers roosting to flying.

It growls, grunts, hisses, and almost barks like a dog. Go here and click “listen” to learn that it has no sweet song. Its habitat once stretched from Canada to Mexico, and all over the United States including New York, Florida, California, and Arizona. By the 1980s their habitat fell to some 2,700 square miles in California.

Threats

California Condors have faced threats throughout its life including:

  1. Predation of nestlings and eggs by Common Ravens, Golden Eagles, and black bears.

  2. Loss of prey, such as prehistoric herds that roamed the continent.

  3. Spiritual ceremonies where Condors were sacrificed for funeral rituals of great men.

The threats below by Europeans ravaged the California Condors’ numbers:

  1. European settlers built ranches, hunted for sport, and collected California Condor eggs and skins for scientific study.

  2. The biggest threat, lead from bullets, was used to kill bison, coyotes, wolves, pronghorns, deer, and rabbits. Lead bullet fragments laced the carrion, poisoning California Condors.

  1. Cyanide. Ranchers left cyanide-laced meat to lure and kill coyotes, but California Condors ate this meat and were collateral damage.

  2. By 1987 only 27 California Condors lived in central southern California. They were raised in captivity and rewilded to California, Arizona, Utah, and the Mexican state, Baja California.

  3. Small birds sit on power lines, but the huge California Condor’s wingspan touched both live wires at the same time, causing death from electrocution.

  4. Sometimes a California Condor mistakenly brought trash like micro waste, plastic bottle caps, broken glass, and cigarette butts to their chick, causing its death.

  5. Condors feeding on roadkill are vulnerable to car crashes.

  6. Condors are killed by poison-laced dead rats.

  7. The 1940 insecticide DDT contains DDE, which caused thinning of eggshells and posed dangers to other wildlife. By 1972 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) canceled all DDT orders due to its adverse effects on wildlife, and its potential to be a carcinogen to humans.

California Condors thrive in areas nearly unreachable to humans, who are responsible for most threats these birds face even today.

Sunbathing

Every morning the California Condor wakes and stretches its wings to the sun. They sunbathe often, and preen meticulously, feather by feather. We call it vanity, but they call it hygiene.

When eating, condors reach deep into a carcass causing dirt and muck to stick to their heads and necks. They rub against a rock or other surface to remove natural carrion germs.

The sun’s heat dries the muck in their heads’ feathers, making it fall off. They also find water to drink and bathe. Potholes, rock puddles, cattle troughs, water pools, and waterfalls are some sources. Bathing is a family affair where they meticulously groom each other’s skins and feathers.

Data gathering using Andean Condors

In 1987, little was known about California Condors. The information above was gathered by tracking and observing captive and rewilded birds.

Veterinary medicine is different from wild animal care, and one can’t be substituted by the other. So they needed to learn how to care for these birds.

The San Diego Zoo scientists couldn’t risk their rescued condors for information gathering. They instead chose to observe the Andean Condors of Peru, which most closely resembles the California Condor.

Here’s how they learned by studying the Andean Condors of Peru:

  1. The San Diego Zoo accessed captive Andean Condors in the US.

  2. Condors thrive where humans least prevail. To rewild the Andean Condors the remote Illescas Peninsula of Piura, Peru was chosen.

  3. The Andean hatchlings had no human contact to augment their rewilding at age one.

  4. The chicks were fed by puppets with the Andean Condor’s motherly sounds playing in the background.

  5. One-year-old Andean chicks were tagged with trackers to monitor them 24/7. The chicks were placed in possibly old Condor nests in their new habitat.

  6. Humans observed the hatchlings’ sociability, dependency, and interaction with adult condors that land on Illescas.

  7. Happily, the wild birds “adopted” the captive-born chicks and fed them.

This data guided the care, breeding, and rewilding of California Condors.

Rewilding timeline

  1. 1991. Two California Condors were released to a California wild sanctuary.

  2. 1992. Eight California Condors were released to Sespe Condor Sanctuary. Three died, one from power line electrocution, the other possibly by roadkill, and the third by eating antifreeze from the ground. The remaining five condors were recaptured and brought to the remote San Rafael Wilderness in Santa Barbara County.

  3. 1996. Six condors were rewilded north of the Grand Canyon at Vermilion Cliffs. Their numbers rose to 71, remaining in the Grand Canyon region.

  4. 2000. Efforts bore fruit with 50 birds in the wild and 128 in captivity, totaling 178 California condors.

  5. 2019. There were 337 California Condors in the wild, and 181 in captivity, totaling 518, all descendants of the 27 rescued birds in 1987. They are found in central southern California, Arizona, Utah, and Mexico.

Habitat

California Condors like wide stretches of pristine land that is almost unreachable to humans. They roost in large trees and nest in the hollows of redwood trees or other large tree cavities. They also live in holes in rocky cliffs. They like rubble for nests and require a very large range for foraging. The rocky hills and mountain slopes of chaparrals suit them, as do forested mountains 6,000 ft. high. The height provides space for soaring. They fly by running downhill until they pick up the air, or by running off a cliff. A reliable open wind is needed for gliding.

Feeding

  1. California Condors eat 3 pounds of meat daily.

  2. They like large carcasses like goats, cattle sheep, deer, horses, and coyotes. Smaller food is rabbits, squirrels, and rodents.

  3. If California Condors eat too much, they must rest for several hours before flying again. Overfeeding and/or overdrinking allow them to go without food and/or water for three days.

Solutions

Biologists use fake power poles to train condors in captivity. If they land on the wires, they get a light shock. This teaches them to avoid electric posts in the wild.

They are also considering anti-perching barriers, and emitting high-pitched sounds so these birds will avoid heavily populated areas. Annually, biologists survey wild condors, replacing their transmitters and testing blood for lead levels.

In 2013, California banned using lead ammunition. The law was fully implemented in 2019.

What if there were no California Condors?

California Condors are nature’s disposal and health system. By eating carrion they prevent disease epidemics that can harm humans, livestock, and wildlife. This same process releases nutrients that are beneficial to insects and plants.

California condors provide a sound measurement of the wellness of its environment and nearby ranchlands. Because they cover a vast range when in flight, and because they live up to 60 years and only reproduce only every two years, they become a gauge for changes in the open countryside that is their habitat. They’re sensitive to toxins and pollution, so their presence indicates that their environment is ecologically healthy.

By their largeness, they capture human attention and inform us of noxious substances and hazardous waste that may affect many other bird species and wildlife. This makes the California condor a vanguard for healthy wildlands vibrant animal life within its range. We should all be so lucky.