Just don't call the condors wild

  • Steve Herman

 

The success of the California condor captive breeding program is easily exaggerated. From the standpoint of the number of young birds that have been hatched -- over 400 of them -- there’s no question that it’s a stunning achievement. 

But beyond that, some observations are in order.

In particular, it seems reasonable to question the validity of attaching the term “wild” to any of the released birds. If wild means being free and independent, they are not wild. If wild means being unmonitored, they are not wild. If wild means going undetected for any period of time, they are not wild.

Many of these birds are tethered to their handlers with radios; most are marked with what are known as “patagial tags” -- tags that are placed on the fold on the leading edge of a wing. These tags allow the condors to be identified as individuals from great distances.  All or most of them are trapped annually and examined for lead; if their blood shows high lead levels, they are treated. All or most are routinely “provisioned” -- fed in the field by human hands.

Lead poisoning is a real threat; several condors have died, and more have been saved by treatment.  But, strangely, this now-dominant mortality factor was not detected until condors were first trapped as part of the hands-on condor program initiated in the early 1980s.  To my knowledge, no condor is known to have died or been sickened by lead before the effort to take wild birds into captivity got under way. The many killers of condors before then included the cyanide-loaded shot shell called “coyote-getters,” DDT, shootings and powerline collisions.

Meanwhile, “hatchery birds” display self-destructive behavior that was unknown in the truly wild condors that reproduced without human assistance. Adults now commonly bring “microtrash”  -- plastic, bottle caps, hunks of metal -- into the nest and often try to feed these items to their young, causing injury or death.

The California condor recovery effort has grown into a $3 million a year industry, and many devoted and competent persons are employed to save this magnificent bird.  I maintain that some of the second-generation birds -- fledged from nests in natural situations -- should be left alone to be free from radios and patagial wing tags -- not purposely provisioned or trapped, so that the possibility of a truly wild and independent population can be encouraged and accelerated.

Self-sufficiency, in the sense that the number of surviving young fledged birds is equal to or exceeds the number of deaths, seems within reach in some subpopulations. But true self-sufficiency will not come until the birds can survive free from radios and wing tags and can feed themselves; only then will captive bred condors have been truly “released into the wild.”

But when I broached the idea of letting a nestling fledge without radio or wing tag to a biologist monitoring condors in Pinnacles National Park this April, I got only a wry smile in response, along with the reply, “Maybe that would be OK when the population stabilizes.”

The idea of captive breeding for California condors began in the 1940s.  As numbers of the birds decreased, enthusiasm for caging the remaining population intensified and eventually reached a fever pitch that overshadowed other, less radical suggestions. Those championing captive breeding demonized the previous generation of experts who had fought to save condors for decades, and treated those who questioned captive breeding as the final solution with derision.

In the early 1980s, the last two dozen, still-wild condors were reproducing at the population’s maximum rate.  An effort to slow the pace of the captive breeding effort -- taking the first wild eggs into captivity, but leaving the replacement eggs to be raised by the wild condors -- was rejected in favor of caging all the birds that could be trapped.  Had the slower-paced idea survived that time of desperation, some adults would have been left in the wild to mentor the captive-bred birds.  Instead, as it turns out, the extirpation of the true, wild California condor was accomplished with the capture and caging of the last free-born one.

It seems likely that this program will succeed eventually, and praise is due to those who are pursuing it.  But let’s save our heartiest applause for that time when California condors are truly wild again -- a time when we can feel a tinge of wildness ourselves when we catch a glimpse of a condor soaring over a far-off peak.

Steve Herman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He was the chairman of the California Condor Advisory Committee to the California Fish and Game Commission from 1980-1984, and lives in western Washington.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -