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First Flight for Pinnacles Condor Chick Raises Hope for Species

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Condor 828 in late spring, 60 days old | Photo: National Park Service

The staff at Pinnacles National Park made a happy announcement on Friday; a five-and-a-half-month-old California condor chick successfully flew out of its nest in the park last week. That’s the first time a baby condor has “fledged” at Pinnacles since the 19th Century.

The baby condor, dubbed “Condor 828,” hatched in April of this year from an egg laid in February. Baby condors typically remain in their nests for their first six months, which means Condor 828 is developing ahead of schedule. According to the National Park Service, Condor 828’s precocious first flight from her nest last week was observed closely by her doting mother, Condor 236 — released by condor captive breeding program biologists at Big Sur — and dad Condor 340, released at Pinnacles.

Since then, says Pinnacles condor program manager Rachel Wolstenholme, little 828 has been getting to know her nest’s immediate surroundings.

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“She’s doing great,” Wolstenholme told KCET. “She’s doing exactly what she’s supposed to be doing after fledging: making flights from tree to tree, spending a lot of time just hanging out in the treetops.”

Condor 828 is the first successfully fledged condor chick Pinnacles has seen since the 1890s. Condors have nested in the park in recent years, and even laid eggs that hatched out, but modern life is tough on baby condors. “We’ve had eggs that didn’t hatch,” said Wolstenholme, “and a few chicks that hatched but didn’t make it to the fledging stag. Chicks are very vulnerable to predators.”

“The young condor’s flight from the nest gives us a strong sense of hope,” said Karen Beppler-Dorn, superintendent of Pinnacles National Park. “However, our hope is tempered by the challenges that still exist for her and all wild condors.”

California condors have the longest wingspan of any bird native to North America, with some individuals reaching just under ten feet from wingtip to wingtip. Only the trumpeter swan edges out the condor from being North America's heaviest bird: 25-pound condors are not particularly uncommon. With a lifespan of up to 60 years, condors are also among the longest-lived birds in North America. 

Sadly, wild condors rarely live out their full allotted 60 years these days, as they contend with the hazards of the modern world. Condors are doing better these days than they were a generation ago, but that's due to the prodigious and expensive efforts of wildlife biologists. In 1987, the total world population of California condors had fallen to 27, all of which were captured that year in an attempt to preserve the species through captive breeding. For the last 15 years biologists have been reintroducing condors into the wild in California, Arizona, and Baja California. Though there have been some successful fledges like 828’s, the majority of the free-flying California condor population has been hatched in captivity and released into the wild by biologists. Without the captive breeding program, the birds wouldn’t be able to replenish their numbers quickly enough to maintain a stable population, much less a growing one.

That’s due to a number of factors, from a scarcity of large carrion for the birds to eat to environmental hazards such as powerlines. But one of the biggest threats to condors is lead poisoning, generally coming from bullets or lead shot the condors find in scavenged game. Condors have a habit of selecting and ingesting small hard fragments found in carrion, which may have helped the birds get enough calcium back before the advent of lead ammo. But that habit often means the the birds will carefully pick out and ingest lead ammo in a carcass or hunter’s gutpile. Lead poisoning may be responsible for a third or more of condor deaths in the wild.

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828 with her father, Condor 340. Male condors do much of the work teaching fledged chicks how to behave once they leave the nest. | Photo: NPS 

Use of lead ammunition has been banned since 2008 in condor territory in California, and a statewide ban will take effect in 2019. Condor advocates hope the ban will make it easier for condors to go about their business without ingesting the deadly heavy metal, increasing the species’ chances of eventually surviving without help.

In the meantime, Condor 828’s so-far successful entrance into the world is bringing wildlife biologists hope for the future of the species. “Condors nesting in the wild and surviving on their own is what it’s all about,” said Kelly Sorenson, executive director of the Ventana Wildlife Society, which first initiated condor releases in the Big Sur-Pinnacles area of central California in 1997. “This is yet another milestone towards that goal.”

Banner: an adult California condor in Arizona, 2013 | Photo: Michael Arrighi, some rights reserved

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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