Recovery mission: Keeping condors safe and flying high

Published by Steve on

The largest birds in North America are closely monitored by local groups working to save the animals from extinction.

Source of this article: The Thousand Oaks Acorn, September 5, 2013

As of July, there were a total of 429 California condors in California, Arizona and Baja, Mexico, according to figures from the California Condor Recovery Program.

Of those, 123 call the Golden State home, said Devon Pryor, biological science technician for CCRP, which is run by Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Ventura.

In the early 1980s the condor population reached its lowest level—just 22 birds—said Mike Clark, condor keeper at the Los Angeles Zoo.

The biggest threat to their survival is lead poisoning, the primary cause of death among condors.


Since 1992, 24 condors in California and Arizona have died from eating lead in bullets used by hunters to shoot game that is left behind, and more deaths from the poison are suspected, according to the Institute for Wildlife Studies.Clark, a 1983 Thousand Oaks High School graduate, said that he is treating a condor with 11 lead pellets in its stomach.

“The majority of the time we are taking care of sick birds that come in from the wild,” he said. “The birds are being watched all the time. If a bird stops moving, if it’s sick, we trap it and we check it.”

How are they watched? Condors, most of them bred in captivity, are tagged before they leave their nests: Pryor and her team attach tracking devices to the multifeathered, bald-headed birds that have 20-pound wings that stretch up to 9.5 feet. Most of the condors are hooked to radio transmitters; less than a third receive costly GPS systems.

“If a bird is close by or within range of the antenna it will give a ‘beep,’” said Pryor, a 1999 graduate of Newbury Park High School who studied anthropology at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. “Sometimes we go months without seeing a bird.”

If a bird stops moving or dies, the transmitter will emit a different sound, and Pryor will track down the sick or dead bird to give medical aid or recover the body.

“Through all the carcasses recovered, (lead poisoning) is the main cause of death,” she said.

Saving condors

Assembly Bill 711 aims to prevent condor and other wildlife deaths from lead poisoning. The proposed law would require the use of non-lead ammunition for shooting wildlife.

“Condors benefit greatly from hunters” because of the carcasses they leave behind, Clark said. “But condors are in big trouble when they run into a carcass laden with lead.”

Clark said copper ammunition should be used instead.

“There is way too much lead poisoning. If left alone, condors in the wild would probably be extinct in 20 years,” he said.

As part of the condor recovery program, Pryor recently drove to Ventura with nine condors from an Oregon zoo, where the birds were bred in captivity with the aim of eventually letting them go and increasing their population in the wild. Once released in the fall, the monitored birds will be trapped periodically for routine health examinations.

Condors can live to be 80 years old, Pryor said. The oldest condor, kept at the Los Angeles Zoo, is 46. The oldest wild condor in Southern California is 33.

Despite the birds’ long life span, breeding them in captivity is a slow process. Female condors usually produce only one egg every two years. A chick will spend about two years with its parents.

In addition to lead poisoning and slow reproduction, the condor population faces other obstacles, including power line collisions and West Nile virus, Pryor said.

Through recovery efforts, the goal is to have 450 self-sustaining condors in the wild, Clark said.

“We are hopeful we can get this lead situation under control.”

Condor fascination

“Condors are endlessly fascinating,” said Clark, who has been breeding and releasing condors for 24 years and has worked with many different species. “You’re never done learning what they do, what they’re capable of, how they communicate. They are always surprising you.”

Condors can be trained like dogs and communicate with body language, exhibiting traits that suggest they are sociable, emotional, manipulative and affectionate, the Acton, Calif. resident said.

“Condors solicit affection and give you affection” through nibbles and vocalizations, and by lying down next to other condors and even people like a cat does, he said.

Pryor said that condors are “smart, curious and interesting to watch.”

“The biggest challenge is seeing so many condors die,” she said. “You can’t help but get attached to all of them.”

Where can the rare birds be seen? Condors fly up to 15,000 feet in the air, traveling in California as far as Fillmore to the south, Bear Valley Springs to the north and New Cuyama in Santa Barbara County to the west, Clark said.

They might also be seen at the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge in Kern County, occasionally passing Mount Pinos in the Los Padres National Forest or soaring above the coast of Big Sur.

“As the fog lifts, condors will start flying by,” he said.

For more information about condors or to schedule a visit of the refuge complex, visit,, and To peek inside a wild California condor nest, visit