Santa Monica Observer - Community, Diversity, Sustainability and other Overused Words

By Liz Miller
Observer Staff Writer 

California Condors In Danger due to Soberanes Fire

In 1982 the wild population was down to just 22 individuals; Nesting pairs in Path of Fire

 

August 17, 2016

America's largest land bird has been moving back from the edge of extinction.

A fire that began on August 31 with an illegal campfire is within eight miles of 3 nests with young California condor hatchlings. The months-old young are not yet able to fly and could not escape the flames on their own.

The Soberanes fire has roared through nearly 70,000 acres of wildland, destroying 57 residences and 11 outbuildings.

Biologists report that none of the condors living in the area has yet been killed by the fire, but one of the feeding stations where they leave dead animals for the birds has been destroyed.

The fire is moving south across coastal Monterey County toward the remote sections of the Los Padres National Forest where the condors nest. This is also the location of a "condor sanctuary" site with pens, trailers and a cabin that scientists use when they release condors that have been hatched in zoos.

Biologists have spent 30 years painstakingly nurturing the California condor back from the brink of extinction. They are America's largest land bird, with a wing span reaching up to 9 feet. Due to habitat loss, hunting and lead poisoning, the majestic birds' population had dropped to just 22 nationwide by 1982. In a desperate gamble to save the birds, federal biologists captured all the remaining wild condors in 1987 and began a breeding program in zoos. The birds' young have been gradually released back into the wild.

There are now 82 condors living free in the Big Sur area.

Kelly Sorenson is the executive director of the Ventana Wildlife Society, a nonprofit group that helps lead condor recovery efforts in Big Sur. He told Paul Rogers at the Mercury News that biologists are hoping they won't need to go in and rescue the young birds from the nests. The chicks are 3- to 4-months-old and won't be able to fly on their own for another two or three months

"At this point it wouldn't make sense to pull the chicks out of the nests because we'd have to figure out how to raise them," Sorenson said. "We might do it as a last resort. We are going to be watching day by day."

The chicks are still being fed by their parents.

Adult condors regularly travel up to 100 miles in a day, so they would likely just leave area until the fire was out and the other plants and animals returned. Two adults did disappear in the 2008 Basin Complex Fire that burned 162,818 acres in Big Sur. Their transmitters were never found, leading researchers to believe they may have been overcome by smoke or flames.

In that same blaze, fire burned all around a redwood tree where one condor chick was still in a nest. That bird survived. Nicknamed Phoenix, it is still flying today as an adult along the Big Sur coast.

Experts say that despite the current fire risk, lead poisoning remains the main threat of condor deaths. Condors are scavengers and they eat deer, wild pigs, ground squirrels and other animals that hunters or ranchers may have shot, ingesting lead fragments from the ammunition.

In 2013, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law banning all lead ammunition in hunting in California beginning in 2019. Since then, Sorenson's group has handed out $100,000 in non-lead ammunition to ranchers and hunters around the Big Sur-Pinnacles area. That, he said, has resulted in a decline in lead poisoning deaths in recent years.

Last year was a milestone in the recovery effort. For the first time, in three decades, more condors were born in the wild, 14, than died in the wild, 12.

Joseph Brandt, Pacific Southwest Region U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

30-day old California condor chick

As of Dec. 31, 2015, there were 435 California condors living in the world. Of those, 268 live in the wild, and 167 live in captivity in places where they are bred and hatched, including the San Diego Zoo, Los Angeles Zoo, Oregon Zoo and World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho.

For hikers and tourists interested in seeing the magnificent birds, the Big Sur fires have not yet caused more condors to move inland.

"We're definitely getting smokier air. But in terms of the birds behavior we're not seeing any changes," said Rachel Wolstenholme, condor program manager at Pinnacles National Park. "Some days there might be 40 here, and some days there might be zero. On most days you have a 50-50 chance of seeing a condor."

You can help California Condors by donating to one of the Condor breeding or protection programs. To find out more, go to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service condor page at

http://www.fws.gov/cno/es/calcondor/CondorResources.cfm

 

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