Monthly History Spotlight, April – California Condors

In my previous spotlights, I have featured places. I am working on one featuring a person and one featuring an area, but this month, I want to feature an inhabitant that was on the brink of extinction and which is now having a comeback, due to the efforts of so many, but particularly the Ventana Wildlife Society.

I have been fortunate to have had two up close and personal experiences with condors, one was actually with three condors by the side of Highway One, and one here in my garden, after a fire. That one stayed 3 days, until I called up the VWS, worried that it would get used to people and dogs, and sought ideas about how to chase it off. (I had nicknamed that one “Lucy” but she might have been “Traveler.”)

The idea for this monthly spotlight came from a great photo sent to me by Dan Danbom, who has given me permission to write this article around his photographic studies.

Facts about the California Condor
The California condor is the largest flying bird in North America. Their wings may stretch nearly 10 feet (3 meters) from tip to tip. When in flight, these huge birds glide on air currents to soar as high as a dizzying 15,000 feet (4,600 meters). They can live up to 60 years in the wild, and mate for life. They are very social animals.

Like other vultures, condors are scavengers that feast on the carcasses of large mammals, such as cattle and deer. When a big meal is available, the birds may gorge themselves so much that they must rest for several hours before flying again.

Condors were sacred birds to the Native Americans who lived in the open spaces of western America. Today, they are best known as the subjects of a famous captive breeding program that may save them from extinction. (National Geographic link)

History of the California Condor

Ten thousand years ago, California condors lived on both coasts of North America, from British Columbia to Baja California in the West, and New York to Florida in the East. By about 1900, the condor population plummeted and was limited to southern California, due to many factors including loss of habitat, a low reproductive rate, poisoning, and shooting. Today, designated refuges and captive breeding programs help protect and restore the species. (National Parks Conservation Association link)

Currently, this condor inhabits only the Grand Canyon area, Zion National Park, and western coastal mountains of California and northern Baja California. Although other fossil members are known, it is the only surviving member of the genus Gymnogyps.

Condor numbers dramatically declined in the 20th century due to poaching, lead poisoning, and habitat destruction. Eventually, a conservation plan was put in place by the United States government that led to the capture of all the remaining wild condors in 1987. These 22 birds were bred at the San Diego Wild Animal Park and the Los Angeles Zoo. Numbers rose through captive breeding and, beginning in 1991, condors have been reintroduced into the wild. As of February 2010, there are 348 condors known to be living, including 187 in the wild. (Wikpedia, March 2010)

Two of the Condors were lost in the Basin Complex Fire of 2008, here in Big Sur, despite herculean efforts by the VWS to save the condors from the fire.

The Ventana Wildlife Society has developed a strong program for the recovery of this, the largest of North American birds, and has a site where you can learn more about the profiles and life histories of the birds living here in Big Sur. Check out:

To see more condor photographs by Dan, visit his Condor Gallery

**HELP FIND A MISSING CONDOR** 6:30 pm, 4/2/10 – I just got a message that Joe Burnett, a biologist for the VWS who works with and monitors the condor recovery program, is worried about a missing condor. He is the oldest male here, and has been living in Big Sur for 11 years. missing bird #204 – tag shows #4 with two white dots partner #222 – 22 with two white dots. According to my source, he (Joe) sounded pretty concerned, Joe thinks the bird may be sick and may have crawled into a shed or the area behind one, probably in area of Partington. If you spot this condor, call the VWS immediately, and let them know where he was spotted. Do NOT try to rescue the bird yourself, let the professionals handle it. And get the word out to your neighbors, if in Partington area. Thank you.

6 thoughts on “Monthly History Spotlight, April – California Condors

  1. Dave Allen sent me this today:


    Photos by David Allan

    ( can’t get the photos to insert here, so use your imagination!)

    On my way to teaching at Pacific Valley School or fishing out of Mill Creek, I often encounter these fascinating birds lounging by the highway between Coast Gallery and Fuller’s Beach. It seems that they are reflecting on a delicious gourmet meal of rotten dead seal carcass, featured on the menu at their favorite restaurant…the sea lion colony beach below at the base of the cliff. One day in June 2007, a particular bird, #40, insisted on perching a bit too close to the roadway. So I attempted to “shoo” that condor to a safer location. At first the condor refused to move. But after a second “shoo” gesture, he extended his wings and took flight, in the process slapping be with a wing, delivering a royal face full of feathers!

  2. Nice read Kate. You did not mention if you see them soaring on occassion though I imagine you do with perfect thermals around your perch.
    I recall the heroic efforts of the VWS people during the Basin Complex. One of the lessor appreciated stories of that epic event.

  3. I spoke with Joe Burnett of VWS this morning and they are missing one of their oldest male condors. He usually hangs out in the Partington area. They’ve been contacting people on Partington to be on the watch. The bird has been in Big Sur for 11 years.

    Nice article, Kate.

  4. Thanks for posting the news about our missing condor, #204. I have good news to report on his status…he was finally captured down in southern California at Hopper Mountain Wildlife Refuge (near Fillmore, CA)in mid April. He disappeared from Big Sur in early April shortly after we noticed a major decline in his health. I immediatley alerted Big Sur residents that live in the vicinity of his nesting territory to keep on the lookout for a sick condor. We attempted to capture him near one of his night-time roost spots, but he was still strong enough to elude us and then he went completely off the radar. A volunteer took me up in his airplane to track 204’s radio signal, but nothing…we flew all the way down to SLO and back up the coast. A few days later we recieived a call from our partners in So Cal (US Fish and Wildlife Service, who I had alerted as well) that 204 had arrived at their condor release site. The last time 204 flew to that site was 4 years ago, which caught me by surprise, but I always knew it was a possibility. He was so lethargic in Big Sur I didn’t think he had the strength to make the 250 mile flight, but he did it…really amazing. He was captured the following day and is now recovering at Los Angeles Zoo. It appears he sustained two injuries to his wings, which he may have been inflicted during an attack by a Golden Eagle. One of his injuries was a puncture wound that went completely through his wing, most likely from the talon of an eagle. The injuries made him more vulnerable to the flock and likely caused him to be singled out. If your a dominant male that is injured, you become a target for lower ranking males. I witnessed this firsthand and believe this directly led to his poor health and emaciation…the less dominant birds wouldn’t let him feed. He continues to do well at the Zoo and we plan to re-release him later this month. A big Thanks to the community for keeping an eye out for Big Sur’s wildlife, they really need us to be their protectors. Great spotlight story on the condor…check out our monthly field notes for updates on the Big Sur condor flock.
    Cheers, Joe Burnett- Ventana Wildlife Society

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.