Pioneer Redwood condors learn what it takes to be free
A2 has his weight checked on a scale near the carcasses placed at the release site where the birds return to feed. The weight of the condors is closely monitored, which [Photo courtesy NCCRP]
Condor A0 sunbathes at the Yurok facility in Northern California. [Photo courtesy Northern California Condor Recovery Project]
Condor A3 gets a weight check. [Photo courtesy NCCRP]
Two condors atop the enclosures of the Northern California Condor Recovery Project. [Photo courtesy Northern California Condor Recovery Project]
Condor enthusiasts around the world are monitoring the progress of three California condors released near the mouth of the Klamath River in May.
This return of North America’s tallest land bird – against the backdrop of the world’s tallest trees – is a riveting drama, with hope taking center stage, right next to the condors.
“These are the first condors to fly the skies of the Pacific Northwest in 130 years, and no one is about to show them how to be a condor, they have to figure it out for themselves – and that’s a steep learning curve,” said Tiana Williams-Claussen, wildlife program manager for the Yurok Tribe.
Williams-Claussen and Yurok Condor Restoration Program Manager Chris West began working on condor reintroduction in 2008, developing partnerships with Redwood National and State Parks to form the core of the Northern Condor Restoration Program. California, which is part of a multi-state network of agencies, zoos and universities. , organizations, private companies and individuals committed to saving critically endangered species.
Many years ago, six captive-bred condors were released together, in part “to satisfy the press’s desire to see the big release,” West said. “But not this time. Scientists and biologists run this show.
West says staggered releases work better because the social appeal of condors still in captivity helps keep released birds loosely attached to Yurok’s release management facility, allowing his team to better observe and track. individual birds, which are fitted with GPS transmitters.
Prior to their release, the 3-year-old condors spent weeks watching wild vultures and crows feeding on carcasses placed outside their enclosure at the release facility. Now condors venture into the redwoods and return at will to feed and hang out.
When sated, they bathe and preen, sometimes “beaking” through the fence with still captive condors awaiting release, or they perch with open wings, “soaking the sun”. The two freed males, who have formed a strong bond, sometimes hug each other’s long necks and snuggle up like kittens for a nap. They also struggle in tall grass and have been spotted rolling a skull while playing.
Williams-Claussen refers to the “coolness” of “prey-go-neesh”, the Yurok word for condor. “They’re smart and very curious, so they’re always getting into something.” Some biologists describe young condors as “a pack of unruly teenagers”, reminding them more of primates than birds.
Although it may look like a free-for-all around the carcasses, there is a definite hierarchy and the condors rule. With a wingspan of nearly 10 feet, when the condors charge with open wings, the red-headed vultures scatter. Sometimes mischievous crows grab a condor’s tail feathers – and the condor swirls at them. Yurok’s Condor Live Cam is lively entertainment (www.yuroktribe.org/yurok-condor-live-feed).
Captive-bred condors socialize with adult “mentor” condors, who help them learn the “condor language”, which is considered quite complex. Condor biologists say they have “failed to decode” the mysteries of condor nonverbal communication.
Having no voice box, condors don’t really vocalize (they just make the occasional whistle and growl), so it’s all about body language. Head tilts, eye positions, and body postures all convey meaning. And since they can live into their 60s, communication skills accumulate throughout their long lives.
“Condors may inflate the air sacs on their necks and heads, usually to show dominance or to attract a mate,” said Robin Jenkins, monitoring technician at the Northern California Condor Restoration Program. “They can also change the color of their head at will, but you’d have to be a condor to know what that means.”
“They’re a fascinating species,” said West, who has decades of experience with condors. “They do unexpected things. In Big Sur, juvenile condors in the enclosure would beg for free unrelated condors, which would then approach the fence and regurgitate them.
Wild condors fledge at 6 months and then depend on their parents for flying lessons for another year. Captive-bred birds lack this crucial training, so for these first free-living condors in the region, red-headed vultures once again came to the rescue by unwittingly demonstrating flight and landing skills.
For tens of thousands of years – from Mexico to British Columbia – the condors’ daily search for food began after the sun heated the earth’s surface enough to generate rising currents of warm air that they could browse. Condors often congregate at the edge of a cliff and then dive into these updrafts, allowing the winds to lift them as they soar in circles in these columns to get a bird’s eye view of the world below. They have been observed up to 15,000 feet and they possess extraordinary visual acuity. The condors don’t miss much.
Traveling up to 150 miles a day, condors cruise thermals for hours, barely flapping a wing. They are the best low-energy travelers, which is one of the reasons they can go for long periods between meals. Although this lack of wing beats means it “takes longer for young birds to learn to read the wind to stay aloft and in control,” West said.
When the open sky beckoned, the first two Yurok condors answered the call. The boys flew away straight away – A2 returned after a few hours, but A3 stayed 10 miles away and didn’t return for two weeks after being grounded in harsh weather. (Birds are identified by tags on their wings.)
Now A3 has better flying skills, and West observed him using “directional wind” to gain altitude. “They don’t necessarily need thermals. There’s enough instinct there. A3 uses the landscape in the same way wild condors have been seen in the past. These birds will become the teachers and show us how the condors used this habitat.
When the condor A0 was released, she initially stuck around, but eventually went on her own and has been gone for a few weeks. Her GPS tracker indicates that she is hidden in a remote part of the forest. She is closely watched – and she learns to jump up and fly between trees.
“Young wild condors connect with groups of juveniles, and each juvenile will have this knowledge of a piece of the landscape,” West explained, “so they have this social network and share information with each other. lifelong learners. And as more individuals are released, captive bred condors will have access to this population that has all this knowledge, but for these early birds it is a huge challenge. .
As the condors become more adept in flight — and more familiar with the area — they’ll start to fly longer distances, West said, “so we’re taking advantage of that period where we have to watch them from so close.”
A fourth condor will be released in July and several more will fly freely in the fall. Then, for the next 20 years, up to eight condors will be released from Yurok’s Condor Complex each year.
Condor pairs produce only one chick every two years – so after more than a century of struggling against impossible odds, and with only 22 wild condors left on Earth, prey-go-neesh was slipping away. Poaching, poisoning and habitat loss had taken their toll, so in the late 1980s the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service captured the last hooked birds in Southern California and used them. to sow breeding programs in zoos.
It was controversial. Some conservationists believed that captive-bred condors could never survive in the wild.
Still, the breeding programs exceeded expectations and the condors were released back into the wild after 15 years. Today, more than 300 condors fly free at several locations in the West. The biggest obstacle to establishing self-sustaining populations is the lead shot that condors ingest when feeding on piles of intestines left behind by hunters. Half of the mortality of wild condors is due to lead poisoning.
Lead shot was banned in California three years ago, and efforts are underway to secure similar bans in other states. Condors only eat carrion, so they are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning, although many wildlife species supplement their diets with carrion and also succumb to lead poisoning.
Williams-Claussen explained the Yurok’s traditional “world renewal ethic”, which underscores his tribe’s commitment to helping maintain balance in the world. This ethic drives their condor restoration efforts, forest rehabilitation projects, efforts to remove salmon-killing dams from the Klamath River and more. “Prey-go-neesh historically fed on salmon, so salmon runs are also very important.”
Learn more about the Yurok condor program at www.facebook.com/YurokCondors
Contact Valley Illinois freelance writer Annette McGee Rasch at [email protected]