Wednesday, May 25 , 2016, 4:58 pm | Partly Cloudy 71º

California Condor Population Reaches Recovery Milestone

After near-extinction, 100 of the birds — of all ages — are now soaring in the wild, conservation officials say

By Chuck Graham, Noozhawk Contributor |

California’s population of wild, free-flying condors recently reached a high of 100 birds, a key milestone for their restoration. It’s a far cry from 1987 when the wild population was teetering on extinction, with only 14 condors struggling to survive in the Santa Barbara County backcountry.

A golden eagle asserts its place in the avian pecking order by scattering a flock of California condors gathered around a carcass in Pinnacles National Monument.
A golden eagle asserts its place in the avian pecking order by scattering a flock of California condors gathered around a carcass in Pinnacles National Monument. (Chuck Graham / Noozhawk photo)

“With 100 wild condors now in California, the California Condor Recovery Program has reached another milestone on the road to recovery for this iconic bird,” said Jesse Grantham, California condor program coordinator.

“This achievement is a testament to the work of our biologists in the field and the efforts of our public and private recovery program partners.”

Each fall, captive-bred, year-old condors are released into the wild, primarily from two sites: Pinnacles National Monument, in San Benito County east of Soledad, and Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge, near Maricopa in Kern County in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

After the juvenile condors are released, they typically remain close to the release site — slowly exploring their new surroundings, learning to fly in the thermal updrafts and becoming integrated into the existing wild flock. Within five to six months, these young birds will follow the wild population throughout their range.

In addition to releasing captive-reared birds, mature wild condors — members of the vulture family — are producing their own young. Since 2004, 16 young condors born and raised in the wild have joined the wild flock in California.

“The population in Southern California is moving around in a triangular pattern between Hopper Mountain, Bitter Creek and Tejon Ranch,” said Michael Woodbridge, head of public affairs at Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge.

“The current release sites are isolated, the foraging is good, and we can keep an eye on them easier,” he said. “They’re not as mountainous.”

Despite the high number of condors soaring across Los Padres National Forest, they’re still susceptible to lead poisoning. Woodbridge said the condor program is still working with hunters to use alternative ammunition.

“There’s still some grumbling, but it’s improving,” said Woodbridge. “We’ve seen improvement in lead levels in the birds in Southern California, but levels are higher in Northern California.”

Click here for more information on the California Condor Recovery Program.

Noozhawk contributor and local freelance writer Chuck Graham is editor of Deep magazine.

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