Flight of the Condors

 

© Joshua Asel

Story and Photographs by Joshua Asel

After the last two California Condors were taken from the wild in 1987, conservationists like Joe Burnett of Ventana Wildlife Society turned to captive breeding programs to get North America’s biggest bird up and flying once again.

Those last two California Condors taken out of the wild joined the other 26 captive condors on an epic journey to boost their numbers. It has been the better part of three decades and the toiled labors of wildlife conservationists, biologists, citizen scientists, and volunteers have paid off. A mere 450 individuals (approximately) exist in the wild today, making them one of the rarest megafauna species in the world. After their disappearance from their natural landscape, captive breeding programs from the San Diego Zoo and Los Angeles Zoo paved the way for new generations of Critically Endangered California Condors. By 1992, the first condors were released back into Southern California and then into the Grand Canyon and Arizona in 1996.

Lewis and Clark once recorded the discovery of a Gray Whale carcass being fed on by a flock of California Condors. Over two centuries later, condors are finally seen again feeding on a whale in Big Sur, seeming to proclaim, “We’re back, and we’re here to stay.”

​​Juvenile California Condors have black heads, unlike their adult counterparts, which have heads and chests the colors of sunsets. Flying high in the Santa Lucia Mountains over Big Sur. © Joshua Asel

Death From Above is how early immigrants saw condors because of their massive size and ominous appearance. This perception has been all but silenced thanks to public education. Awareness births the reality of what California Condors really are: vital eco-cleaners. Although massive, condors are a type of vulture species, which means they help recycle rotting carrion – keeping wild and rural environments free of unwanted bacteria and diseases. Condors have never been, and never will be, a threat to humans. False perceptions of certain wild animals like condors can plague the human mind. Fearful, dreaded stories are historically significant in playing the part to bring an entire species to their metaphorical knees, even resulting in complete extinction for many like the California Golden Bear, the Eastern Cougar, and the Cascade Mountain Wolf.

Biologist David Moen gently holds the future of a species in his hands as the rest of the team preps for blood testing. © Joshua Asel

As if that wasn’t enough, the pesticide DDT, responsible for the near-extinction of many birds, including Bald Eagles and Peregrine Falcons, wrecked havoc on these flying giants. DDT thins the eggshells of birds, which makes the shells unreliable for growth and protection. The shells would get crushed simply when the parents tried to warm them. Fortunately, DDT was banned in 1972. Despite the welcome comeback of Bald Eagles and Peregrine falcons thriving today, California Condors still have a long way to go. The biggest problem California Condors face today, besides minor poaching even still, is lead consumption. Humans have a similar problem with consuming lead through water sources. But the condor’s intake comes from fragments of lead bullets instead.

Field teams throw out cow carcasses, which are donated from ranches, to lure in the old world birds of prey. © Joshua Asel

In 2008, the Ridley-Tree Condor Preservation Act passed, which states that no one is allowed to use lead bullets within the California Condor’s range. Easier said than done. Lead bullets are favored bullets because they are cheap. And gun-toting people who use them continue to make a poisonous mess of wild ecosystems. This is why Ventana Wildlife Society, the conservation organization located in Central California, has been charged with, and originally led the charge, monitoring the health of the remaining condors in California by initiating hands-on blood testing with wild condors.

Teams from Big Sur and Pinnacles National Monument come together for an incredible day of condor trapping, blood testing, and releasing. High spirits and all smiles filled the day. © Joshua Asel

I had the opportunity to interview Joe Burnett, Senior Wildlife Biologist at Ventana Wildlife Society:

“In Monterey County, VWS released California Condors back to the wild for the first time in 1997, a whole decade since their removal from the wild. What was that like?”

“It was an incredible moment for Ventana Wildlife Society and myself because not only would we be the only non-profit releasing condors in California, but we would also be the first coastal release site in the program.”

“During the formative years of the release process, the condors were supplied supplemental carcasses by VWS biologists. How did supplemental feeding help get them to feed on wild carrion again?”

“The supplemental feeding is designed to mimic natural foraging and strategically located in areas where natural food sources abound. Thus far, the supplemental sites have been successful at introducing the condors to natural foraging areas as well as providing a lead-free food source. Lead poisoning from the ingestion of spent ammunition in carcasses is currently the leading cause of mortality for condors and preventing the population from becoming self-sustaining.”

“Condors are swallowing not just fragments of lead from bullets, but sometimes the entire bullet?”

“Yes, we documented a condor that had swallowed a spent 22 caliber round, that condor ended up dying from that 22 bullet.”

“And despite the natural recycling services they provide for ecosystems, people still poached them and stole their eggs?

“Yes, this was a common practice in the late 1800’s early 1900’s and most likely due to their lack of understanding of condor biology at that time period. People saw them as a large threatening bird, even though they are merely a scavenger and are not threat to humans.”

“All of those years without condors must have taken a heavy toll on local environments.”

“It’s unknown what the actual impacts were in their absence, but we do know they serve a very important role in disease control and carcass management on the landscape, so I would guess the carcasses of larger fauna (whales, ungulates) were not rendered nearly as much as they are now.”

“What inspired you to save the California Condor?”

“I became very inspired when I learned that condors were dying out mainly as a result of human actions and not by any natural processes. The condors have always been the underdogs and needed advocates to help save them. Plus, from the first time I saw one flying in the wild, I have always been in awe of them, so majestic and so perfect in their own natural way, they belonged and I knew at that time I would do whatever I could to keep them around for generations to come.”

 

Joshua comes from the San Francisco Bay Area where he grew to love the natural world around him. He cares most about ocean life and carnivores; wildcats, wolves, sharks, and many other keystone species. He is an award-winning Wildlife Photographer, Saiga Antelope Ambassador, and the is the Founder and Director of Wild Expectations. He also instructs outdoor classes on how to ID birds of prey in real-time and how to track large carnivores without assistance from hounds or radio-telemetry. Joshua’s publications are included in Defenders of Wildlife, National Geographic Education, Alaska Airlines, UC Davis Bodega Marine Lab Magazines, Outdoors California, The Press Democrat, and others.  See more on his website:  www.joshuaasel.com