Helping Condors Relearn Their Wild Ways

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David McNew / Getty Images

A California condor

The cage door is open but the young California condor, as immense as he is with his nine-foot wingspan, remains timid. He's not about to leave the captivity he's known his entire life to head into the unknown. But there are teachers out there waiting to instruct him in the wild life. A handful of older, already free-flying condors have gathered outside his pen, gnawing on the calf corpse that biologists put there the night before, specifically to attract the experienced birds. Soon enough, the temptation of rotting flesh proves irresistible and the young condor leaves the cage to join the others at their feast. And when the older birds fill up and fly off to roost, the young one joins them. The biologists watching at California's Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge smile in triumph. What they've just seen is further confirmation that a major step in saving the severely endangered species may be the birds teaching themselves how to survive.

There's nothing new about captive condors being released into the wild: the controversial and ambitious project started in 1992, five years after the last wild condor had been captured when the species' population dipped to a mere 22 birds. But back then, the birds were typically released from the sides of steep cliffs into the wild blue yonder, where biologists hoped they might figure out how to behave naturally. By and large, they could not, and the program endured more than a decade of reports about condors dumpster-diving, campground-raiding and engaging in otherwise self-destructive, human-dependent behavior. Many of the problem birds died, and plenty of the others had to be captured again before their not-so-wild ways resulted in a similar fate. That made everyone, from Endangered Species Act naysayers to ardent species protectors, worry whether the condor was too far gone to ever be truly wild again, becoming instead a species reliant on the hand of man to provide food, encourage breeding and protect it from the elements, both man-made and natural.

Today, however, those worries are finally starting to fade. As the more than 180 free condors living in California, Arizona and Mexico's Baja California start their second generation in the wild and those once wild birds, which were captured before 1987 and can live to be more than 50 years old, are released back into their former habitat, researchers are discovering that condor culture — specifically, how older birds teach younger birds where to find food and how to properly act in the wild — is critical to the species' survival.

Meanwhile, the biologists have also realized that, contrary to long-held opinions about humans needing to stay as far away as possible from the birds, an intensively hands-on approach isn't so detrimental to the condor's survival. Indeed, it may be the only way to help the species to relearn its wild ways. For the first time since the program started, the announced goal — three distinct populations in captivity, California and Arizona, each with 150 birds and 15 breeding pairs — actually seems attainable.

"They act like the original wild condors — they're doing the exact same things that they were doing in the 1980s," explains Jesse Grantham, who started working with the condor in 1979, helped take the birds into captivity during the 1980s and is now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's coordinator of the California Condor Recovery Program. "The condor is restoring the culture and traditions under which it evolved."

Initially, however, condors were subject to what Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Joseph Brandt calls a "hard release," in which a group of very young birds were simply freed and left to their own devices. "As you can imagine, those birds didn't have many role models from the free-flying population," said Brandt, explaining that many of them died or had to be recaptured. "Now we trickle the birds out. It allows us to spend more time focusing on that one individual. If the bird gets integrated, we're comfortable releasing another one or two." Plus, Brandt waits until the birds are at least one year old and always releases them straight into a feeding situation where wild condors are present. "You guarantee that it's going to be interacting with these free-flying birds," explains Brandt, who credits the condor biologists at Pinnacles National Monument in central California with developing this soft release. "It kind of greases the wheels."

There's also plenty of grease when it comes to breeding, thanks to a revolutionary nest-guarding program that's now entering its fourth season. Led by Brandt, who has the rock-climbing experience required to scale the remote cliffs where condors roost, small teams of biologists and veterinarians enter the nests every 30 days to check on the welfare of eggs and chicks until they fledge. As they grow, the monitoring continues via twice-annual checkups and the occasional supplemental feeding session. The program is a departure from years past, in which most of the wild chicks were plucked up by biologists and then put into captivity because the odds for survival were too great. "They knew that hand-rearing them was a potential drawback, but preserving the genetic diversity was the most critical thing at that point," says the Santa Barbara Zoo's director of conservation and research Estelle Sandhaus, who, like biologists before her, realized that the chicks would have the best chance to behave naturally if they were taught by their parents. So now, she explains, "We're fledging chicks in the wild and they're learning from their parents once they fledge ... We're hoping that the chicks will develop more appropriate habits."

So far, it seems to be working, with wild-fledged and properly reintroduced condors exhibiting wider foraging ranges and generally staying away from campgrounds, dumpsters and other human-dependent feeding zones, save for the supplemental meals provided by biologists. But Sandhaus is quick to admit that their research remains "nebulous" and preliminary. "We have such a small number of critically endangered animals that we don't have the luxury of setting up different control groups that have great sample sizes and manipulating important variables," she explains. "We're doing the best we can with the animals we have."

Even if this cultural cure turns out to be real, the condors won't be out of the extinction woods yet. West Nile virus, lead ammunition and the mystery of microtrash — in which parents unwittingly feed small bits of metal, glass, plastic and ceramics to their condor chicks, leading to their eventually asphyxiation and starvation — continue to kill condors in the wild. But with seven nests in all of condor country mountains this season, Sandhaus and Brandt remain hopeful. "Where we're going to start to see the fruits of this is when the chicks that are fledging naturally are breeding on their own," says Sandhaus.

Until then, the research itself is golden for other critically endangered species that may have to be reintroduced to the wild after years of captivity. "You may have to re-create that culture, which is essentially what's being done with condors," says Sandhaus. "We're starting from a complete clean slate."