Condors

 

(This 1007th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on July 11, 2010.)

 

California Condor photo by Mike Noonan

 

We have a particular affinity for big birds. While small birds like Henslow's sparrows are disappearing from our avifauna, we devote much of our attention (and corresponding funding) to big birds whose future has been threatened like the whooping crane, the trumpeter swan and the California condor.

 

There are obvious reasons for this. Little brown birds like that Henslow's sparrow, whose unattractive song is a single chirp and who seldom venture out of their grassland habitat to be seen, don't command our notice.

 

Having made the case for the small birds, I admit that I too find myself drawn to those heavyweights. I recall in particular the excitement I felt when I saw my first pair of trumpeter swans flying along the Yellowstone River in Montana, and my similar excitement seeing whooping cranes in the Aransas Refuge in Texas.

 

But in a lifetime of birding I have never seen a California condor in the wild. There are lots of species I have not seen - my life list doesn't compare with most of my birding friends - but the condor is the one that I miss most.

 

This is indeed a big raptor. Compare its wingspan with our turkey vulture and bald eagle. The span for the vulture and eagle is about six and a half feet; the condor's is nine. Friends who have seen condors tell me that they appear so large in the distance that they are more often misidentified as small airplanes than as eagles or vultures.

 

That wingspan is the condor's defining characteristic for its 23 pounds is only about the same as the weight of trumpeter swans and its 46 inch length is surpassed by whooping cranes and white pelicans.

 

The 19th century range of the condor extended west of the Rockies from northern sections of Baja California just across the Canadian border into British Columbia, but prehistoric fossils have been found in Texas, Florida and, quite remarkably, at the Hiscock Site in Byron, within 50 miles of Buffalo.

 

Condors are carrion feeders and their food is almost exclusively large mammals: deer, goats, sheep, pigs, cougars, bears, cattle, or even along the coast sea lions and whales.

 

In the late 19th century there were many reports of dozens of condors and in one case 150 were observed together, but those numbers declined rapidly as the west was settled.

 

Their relationship to humans has always been a mixed blessing. Condors thrive on the remains of animals shot by hunters, but they in turn were shot and poisoned by ranchers, who thought that they were calf killers. And today their greatest threat is lead poisoning from the bullets they ingest from hunters' prey.

 

Despite their long lives of up to 40 years, condors reproduce slowly and the wild population dropped sharply from about 150 in 1950 to 5 in 1986. Any geneticist will tell you that is well below the critical level for survival. At that point despite widespread opposition it was decided that captive breeding was the only route to survival of this species. The remaining birds were removed from the wild and by 1987 condor survival was entirely dependent on the captive population.

 

The chance for recovery was extremely slim, especially since until then not a single California condor had yet been raised in captivity. The San Diego Zoo had, however, successfully raised Andean condors and they drew on that experience to work with this northern relative.

 

Even before the final birds were captured, breeders had found that, if they removed the single egg laid by a female condor, she would breed again. By this means 16 eggs were removed from nests for artificial incubation. Remarkably, 13 hatched successfully. Then in 1988 the first captive pair bred and the program was underway. The hatchlings were raised at various sites including the Buffalo Zoo.

 

Just ten years later the number of condors had been increased to the 150 birds of 1950 and a release program instituted. Today there are a total of 349 condors, 180 of them released to the wild. Problems remain but the species appears to be making it.

 

A similar program for the Henslow's sparrow? No chance. That species will probably soon follow its cousin, the Ipswich sparrow, into extinction.-- Gerry Rising

 

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For further information about the condor, see the excellent California Natural History Guide by Noel F. R. Snyder and Helen A. Snyder, Introduction to the California Condor.