A group of California Condors are now unfurling their 9.5-foot wings to soar the skies of central California, after being transported in general aviation aircraft from The World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho, to central California, where the National Park Service and the Ventana Wildlife Society released the condors at Pinnacles National Park and in Big Sur.
Helping the Condors take flight were volunteer pilots with LightHawk, which uses the power of flight to aid in conservation efforts.
Early in the morning on Sunday, Sept. 23, 2018, officials with The Peregrine Fund began the delicate process of catching each of the nine Condors.
“It is hard work preparing the condors for the trip, but we want to ensure their safety throughout the process,” says Condor propagation manager Marti Jenkins.
Once the birds were safely inside their kennels, The Peregrine Fund’s condor propagation team drove them to the planes.
“We are so grateful to the volunteer pilots at LightHawk, who donate their time and cost of fuel to help these endangered species,” Jenkins says. “By carefully arranging the best locations and times to meet the pilots to providing tarps to lay under the kennels to protect the interior of the planes we hope to make these flights as stress-free as possible for the condors and the volunteer pilots. ”
Seven planes were used to transfer the nine condors, according to Christine Steele, Lighthawk’s Western Program Coordinator.
“This was a big operation, but we are so happy to have the chance to help with the recovery of this critically endangered and iconic species. We’ve worked with The Peregrine Fund previously on their Aplomado Falcon and Orange-breasted Falcon projects, so we are excited to be partnering again to conserve endangered raptors.”
Once the condors completed their journey, they were happily received by Rachel Wolstenholme, Condor Program Manager for Pinnacles National Park, and Joe Burnett, Senior Wildlife Biologist and Big Sur Condor Recovery Program Coordinator for Ventana Wildlife Society.
“We are ready for this new group of birds to join our central California flock,” Wolstenholme says. “I’m looking forward to watching them take their first flight in the wild.”
The journey for this group of birds started almost a year and a half ago when the adult condors in The Peregrine Fund’s breeding program patiently watched as their new chick slowly hatched out of an egg. The chicks started out weighing just a few ounces, but once the parents were finished nurturing them, they weighed as much as 20 pounds.
“The journey for the entire species started in the 1960s when biologists noted they were in serious decline,” says Wolstenholme. “By the late 1980s there were only 22 California Condors left in the world. It was scary to think that this incredible species, which has soared over our landscape since the Pleistocene, could go extinct on our watch.”
Because of the efforts of the numerous partners in the condor recovery program, there are now nearly 300 California Condors flying free in California, Mexico, Utah and Arizona.
The Peregrine Fund’s condor field and conservation director, Chris Parish, and his team of biologists manage the Arizona and southern Utah population of birds.
“Because of the recovery partners’ work studying this species, we now know that their recovery without the breeding programs is unlikely. Free-flying condors are ingesting lead that they’re encountering on the landscape,” says Parish.
When scavenging birds and mammals eat the remains of carcasses shot with lead ammunition, tiny fragments of the heavy metal can be ingested and then absorbed into their bloodstream, often causing long-term side effects and sometimes even death, biologists explain.
“In response to this and on behalf of other wildlife, like Bald Eagles, Golden Eagles, and other birds of prey, exposed to preventable lead poisoning, we have partnered with the Oregon Zoo and the Institute for Wildlife Studies to form the North American Non-Lead Partnership (NANP),” Parish continues.
The NANP seeks to expand the coalition of hunters, anglers, and other conservationists dedicated to improving ecosystem and wildlife health by choosing to use non-lead alternatives.
Non-lead ammunition options, such as high performance solid copper bullets, help prevent lead poisoning in scavengers.
“Voluntary lead-reduction programs in Arizona and Utah have been very successful,” said Parish. “We want to see these voluntary efforts expanded across North America. We are confident that as this partnership expands, more hunters and organizations will join.”
“We can keep producing condors to send out into the wild, but without increasing the use of non-lead ammo, it’s just a temporary solution,” Jenkins adds. “The NANP and the hunters and anglers who choose to switch to non-lead ammunition are the solution. Once the threat of lead is reduced, the likelihood of recovery will be a possibility.”