There's good news in the effort to bring the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) back from the brink of extinction: Biologists at Pinnacles National Monument have verified the first successful hatching of a condor egg in the park in over 100 years.
The parents of the chick are seven-year-old condors that were previously released in separate locations in California. The female, dubbed condor 317, was released in the park in 2004; the male, condor 318, had been released along the Big Sur coast by the Ventana Wildlife Society. According to park officials, the pair was seen in courtship displays during the winter and paired up for their first breeding attempt.
National Park Service Wildlife Biologist Daniel George reports that the first-time parent condors have been exhibiting normal behavior, regularly feeding and incubating the new nestling. He notes, "The milestone highlights regional efforts to bring the condor back from the brink of extinction."
Joe Burnett, Condor Biologist of Ventana Wildlife Society, is also encouraged by the progress. "It is really great to see a condor that we have invested so much time and effort in, now breeding in the wild,” he said.
“We are thrilled that after being involved with the Condor Recovery Program since 2003, the park has its first condor chick from the first nest in over 100 years,” said Eric Brunnemann, Park Superintendent. Brunnemann notes, "Conveniently, Condors 317 and 318 chose a nest cave that can be easily viewed by the public from the Scout Peak bench on the High Peaks Trail."
The park has some tips for anyone interested in coming to view the birds:
Although the areas directly around the nest cliff will be closed to public use for the duration of the nesting period, public viewing is still possible. The strenuous hike to the viewing area is approximately two miles from the closest East or West Side parking areas. From the west, the elevation gain is approximately 1100 feet, and from the east it is over 1200 feet. Please ask in park Visitor Centers for more complete directions to the viewing area.
A temporary closure area around the nest cliff is in effect during the 2010 breeding season. An area extending from Western Front to Goat Rock and north to the edge of the Juniper Canyon Trail will be closed to protect the nesting birds. The Juniper Canyon and High Peaks trails remain open.
Park visitors interested in off-trail activities within the Monument should consult with a park ranger for specific guidance—violation of this emergency closure can result in serious penalties. Biologists and other staff will be closely monitoring the nest throughout the breeding cycle.
Nestlings remain flightless for an additional 5½ to 6 months. If the new parents succeed in rearing the young condor, NPS biologists expect it would take its first flight in early October.
According to the park staff, Pinnacles National Monument was chosen as a California condor release site due to historical documentation of condors in the area, good cliff nesting opportunities, and large expanses of intact habitat in the region.
There have been six groups of condors released at the park, bringing the current total to 26 free-flying condors. 2009 marked the first year that a Pinnacles-released condor is know to have nested. Condor 313 paired with Condor 303 who laid an egg in a rocky outcrop at the RS Bar Guest Ranch in southern San Benito County. Although Condor 303 died before her nestling took his first flight, the juvenile survived and continues to fly over San Benito County.
With the support of the National Park Service and others involved in the condor recovery effort, the owners and operators of the RS Bar Guest Ranch formed an unprecedented relationship with the Pinnacles Partnership, a nonprofit organization supporting the monument, so visitors could have the opportunity to take guided trips to the remote nest site, where the nesting pair and their offspring could frequently be viewed for extended periods.
National Park Biologists are working with partners at the Ventana Wildlife Society and community volunteers to build a self sustaining population of condors in central California over the next several years. This will contribute to one of the US Fish and Wildlife Service Recovery Plan goals by establishing a population in California of 150 or more condors with at least 15 breeding pairs.
California Condors maintained a strong population in the American West until the mid-19th century, when shooting, poisoning from lead and strychnine, egg collecting, and general habitat degradation began to take a heavy toll. Between the mid-1880s and 1924, there were scattered reports of condors in Arizona. But by the late 1930s, all remaining condors were found only in California and the mid 1980’s, the total population had dwindled to just 22 birds.
As a result of the continued downward spiral of the condor population, the California condor was placed on the federal endangered species list in 1967. In the early 1980s, an intensive captive breeding program rescued the species from extinction and in the 1990s reestablishment efforts began in southern California. Since that time, release sites have also been launched in northern Arizona, along the Big Sur coast, at Pinnacles National Monument, and on the Baja Peninsula in Mexico.
The current world population of California condors numbers 347. Ninety-four birds are flying free in California, seventeen in Baja Mexico, and seventy-three in Arizona. An additional 163 are in captive breeding centers.
For recovery of an endangered species to succeed, it is necessary to change the conditions that lead to their decline. Egg and feather collecting is no longer a significant threat, the effects of DDT are likely to diminish over the coming century, and poisoning of bait carcasses for predator control is no longer an established practice.
Condor biologists note the primary threat remaining to California condor recovery is lead poisoning. Condors inadvertently ingest lead bullet fragments when animal carcasses, or their gut piles, shot with lead ammunition remain on the landscape. This has led the California legislature to ban the use of lead ammunition for big game hunting and some non-game wildlife within the condor’s range.
The reestablishment of California condors to Pinnacles is a cooperative effort between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, National Park Service, Ventana Wildlife Society, Institute for Wildlife Studies, Pinnacles Partnership, and community volunteers.
The San Diego Wild Animal Park, Los Angeles Zoo, the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho, and the Oregon Zoo breed condors destined for release in California, Arizona, and Baja, Mexico.
The Pinnacles condor release site is an important link in the overall condor recovery effort. You'll find more information about the condor program at Pinnacles on the park's website.