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.