Recovering a California Native
The California condor, the largest soaring bird in North America, has long captured the attention of naturalists. Its main post-Pleistocene range extended along the West Coast from Canada through Mexico, up through the early 19th century, after which the population drastically declined. Documented mortality factors include shooting, poisoning, specimen collecting, and collisions with overhead wires. By 1985 just nine birds remained in the wild, and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) petitioned for permission to capture all remaining wild condors in an effort to save the species from extinction. On April 19, 1987, the last free-flying condor was captured. The captive population of condors totaled 27 individuals. These condors were to be bred in captivity with the ultimate goal of repopulating the wild.
Meet Our Partners
The USFWS Condor Recovery Program is built upon a foundation of private and public partnerships. Cooperators in the Program span the West Coast from Northern California to Baja California, Mexico, and through northern Arizona and southern Utah. They include the USDA Forest Service, the San Diego Wild Animal Park, the Los Angeles Zoo, the Oregon Zoo, the California Department of Fish and Game, the Peregrine Fund, the Ventana Wildlife Society, Cetro de Investigación Científica y Educación Superior de Ensenada (CICESE), and Secretaría del Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (SEMARNAT). The focus of the recovery effort is the release of captive bred condors to the wild to ultimately establish self sustaining populations.
The California Condor Recovery Team is an advisory group to the USFWS and includes representatives from all Program cooperators, as well as a broad range of scientists and experts. The Santa Barbara Zoo became official partners of the California Condor Recovery Team in 2002. Our contribution to the Program has grown greatly since that time; through volunteer work at multiple condor release sites, participation in field and recovery team meetings, and ex situ educational efforts, we hope to continue to grow our involvement in the recovery of this true Santa Barbara native.
The Santa Barbara Zoo in the Field: helping with the first step
A young condor's first step in returning to the wilderness is a three-to-six-month pre-release training period in a large flight pen. A group of similarly-aged chicks is placed with a "mentor bird" - an experienced adult condor who serves as a behavioral role model for the inexperienced chicks. Pre-release pens are equipped with a mock utility pole that is capable of giving the condors a mild shock. It is hoped that this conditioning procedure will reduce the tendency of birds to land on dangerous utility poles post-release.
Some of the Santa Barbara Zoo's earliest hands-on work with the Condor Recovery Team occurred during the construction of the release pen in Baja California, Mexico. In 2002, working closely with Dr. Mike Wallace, the Zoo sent teams from our maintenance department on two occasions to assist with construction of the condor release site in Baja California, Mexico. In addition, the Zoo provided financial support and donated a water tank trailer to the Baja release effort. Some of the same staff who had worked on the pen in Baja returned to the field in the spring of 2005 for another release pen project. The USFWS organized a work party to refurbish a release pen in the Santa Barbara backcountry. Our team was instrumental in constructing a nest box for the pen, and also assisted in building watering pools, perching, and blinds.
Santa Barbara Zoo in the Field: helping condors reclaim the range
Once released, all condors carry wing tags with radio transmitters and are closely monitored to track their range usage and food consumption. Santa Barbara Zoo animal care staff has been privileged to work multiple tours at the Big Sur field station of the Ventana Wildlife Society, the only non-profit organization in California that is releasing condors. Duties there include monitoring of released condors by radio telemetry/visual confirmation, preparation and maintenance of the release pen, and feeding of captive and released birds. Feeding sites are observed closely so it can be determined which birds have fed and whether any bird appears to be in poor condition or exhibiting signs of illness. An interesting twist to the work in Big Sur is that the majority of work is done at night to avoid disturbing the condors in the area during the day. So once dusk falls, the real labor begins: staking out food at designated locations, repairing perching in the release pen, and even clearing brush for fire safety. The location is remote and the working conditions are rugged, but the stories the staff has to tell when they return paint vivid pictures for our guests of the incredible beauty of these free-flying birds.
The California Condor Recovery plan calls for the establishment of two geographically separate populations: one in California and the other in Arizona. The plan specifies that each population must number at least 150 birds with at least 15 breeding pairs, be reproductively self-sustaining, and have a positive rate of population growth. An important component of this is to ensure that free-flying condors are fledging chicks into the wild. Since condors in Southern California began breeding and nesting in 2001, nest success has not yet matched recent historical levels. Nest guarding, which combines observation regimes with intervention plans to prevent nest failure, has proven to be of value in other endangered species programs and is expected to be of particular value for the condor, an animal that exhibits a high degree of parental investment in each offspring.
In collaboration with the USFWS and other Recovery Program partners, the Zoo is implementing a nest guarding project in southern California. This project consists of nest monitoring by trained observers to collect quantitative behavioral, developmental and physiological data; intervention strategies to increase nest success; and public education efforts to boost community awareness and support of condor conservation. This will not only increase the nesting success of free-flying condors, but will enable us to more accurately identify the stage at which nesting attempts are breaking down and failing so that we can ultimately solve the issues contributing to failure.
Santa Barbara Zoo at Home: Sharing the Story
Plans for the Santa Barbara Zoo condor exhibit, approved by the Recovery Team in 2002, is on track to break ground in 2007. This will make Santa Barbara only the second community in the world to provide the general public with the opportunity to see these magnificent birds in close proximity. The exhibit itself is positioned to provide views of the resident condors against a backdrop of the Santa Ynez Mountains, which are also native condor habitat. The Zoo will also build a condor treatment facility separate from the exhibit and related holding facilities. This separate building will be used to house condors that have been recovered from the wild and are destined for re-release or transfer to facilities in Escondido or Los Angeles for further treatment.
Related elements of the condor conservation program include public education at the exhibit, integrating condor-related messages into existing programs, adding condor lessons to sessions at our popular Zoo Camp, and developing outreach programs to affect area residents' behavior in "condor country." The survival of the condors in the wild greatly depends on our being able to respect the needs of these great birds. If we are able, through the collaboration of caring people, to find a way to bring this complex species back from the brink of extinction, it is a sign of hope not only for the California condor, but for all struggling species.