California Condor Pair Thought To Have Hatched A Chick In Zion National Park

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Biologists are cautiously optimistic that a pair of California condors, like No. 87 here stretching at Grand Canyon National Park, is raising a chick in Zion National Park/NPS

In what would be a milestone for the California condor recovery program, biologists believe a pair of the large birds has hatched a chick high in the cliffs of Zion National Park.

Though there has been no visible sighting of the chick, which is believed to be in a nest 1,000 feet up a cliffside in a remote area of Zion, biologists say behavior being exhibited by a pair of adult condors is indicative of courtship, nesting, and now parenthood.

“It was only a matter of time before birds started nesting in Utah,” says Chris Parish, Condor field project supervisor with The Peregrine Fund, which has been working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, and other federal agencies, including the National Park Service, on the California condor recovery program. “There is great habitat in Utah and the condors did not take long to find it.”

If there is a chick, it apparently would mark the first time a California condor has been hatched in the wild in the stae of Utah since an experimental population was released in Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in northern Arizona in 1996. Captive bred condors continue to be released in northern Arizona and have successfully nested there; however, they have been spending more time in Utah each year, according to biologists.

Condors are the largest birds in North America, with a wingspan approaching 10 feet. They were declared extinct in the wild in 1987, but a captive-breeding program has been successful in boosting numbers of the bird and releasing them in the wild.

A news release from Zion said the condor pair "self-selected a nesting cavity in a remote canyon within Zion National Park and has been under observation by (The Peregrine Fund) biologists since the condor pair began exhibiting courtship behavior this past winter. The nest cave was found by following radio and GPS signals from transmitters mounted on each condor. Earlier this year, the birds displayed behavior indicating they were incubating an egg and now show signs that they are tending a chick. Basically, this means one adult stays in the nest cave caring for the egg or chick while the other forages widely. They trade these roles every 2-3 days."

“The cavity is 1,000 feet above the canyon floor so no one has yet had direct observation of a chick. If the egg had not been viable, or if a hatchling had died, there would be no reason for the adult condor pair to continue to visit this cavity,” said TPF Condor Project Manager Eddie Feltes.

“This is a significant milestone in the process of restoring a species to its historical habitat,” reported Keith Day, a wildlife biologist with the state of Utah. “It proves that Utah still has suitable habitat for these magnificent birds and that the selection of the Arizona-Utah region for establishing a population was a valid choice.”

For the past four years, other condors have shown breeding and nesting tendencies within Zion National Park, but they were not successful, according to the park release.

"Sadly, of a recent hopeful pair, one of those condors died in 2012 and the other in 2013 due to lead poisoning. Lead poisoning is the biggest obstacle to successful condor recovery in Arizona and Utah," the release said. "Condors ingest lead when feeding on the remains of animals shot with lead-based ammunition. Utah and Arizona both are working with hunters to reduce condor exposure to lead ammunition.

“The California condors have become a very charismatic species and have been captured in many vacation photos in our area’s national parks,” said Fred Armstrong, chief of resource management and research at Zion. “Repeat visitors come to recognize them by their wing tag numbers and routinely ask about them. The park is excited to provide protected habitat for these magnificent birds and to play an important role in their recovery.”