Seven juvenile California condors will be relocated from Big Sur’s Ventana Wilderness to the rugged hills east of San Simeon this July, a biologist with the Ventana Wilderness Society says.
Speaking in Cambria Friday, biologist Joe Burnett announced that the condors will be housed in a large fly pen on private property for approximately a month before being released in the Santa Lucia mountains east of San Simeon.
“We’re very excited and we’ve been pushing for this for seven years,” he said.
Condors are North America’s largest land bird with wingspans of 9-1/2 feet; still an endangered species, they have come back from near extinction through a vigorous captive breeding program.
From the last 27 birds that were taken into captivity in 1987, to the 240 in the wild today — 70 condors fly free in and around the Big Sur and Pinnacles area — the California Condor Recovery Program has achieved stunning success.
“The majority of condor social activity happens in Big Sur,” Burnett told a group of about 70 people gathered in a Rabobank conference room. “That’s where the nests start, and where the young birds begin to believe, ‘Oh this is the greatest place.’
“But as wildlife managers, we really try to encourage the birds to branch out. When they are released (in San Luis Obispo County) this summer, the young ones will eventually join up with birds in Big Sur. The cool part is when you release them somewhere they become fixated on that site.”
Hence, even when they fly north to Big Sur — and east to Pinnacles — to interact with mature condors, they will likely come back to the site where they were released, Burnett explained.
“The mountains just east of San Simeon will be their home base. When it comes time to nest, they’ll come back.”
Presently there are eight nests in the Big Sur and Pinnacles area, and 12 nests in Southern California.
Dining on elephant seals
Condors don’t kill their prey but feed on carrion, and because elephant seal and sea lion carcasses — and whales — wash up on the North Coast shore with frequency, that offers prime mealtime opportunities for condors.
“The great thing about elephant seals versus sea lions is they’re very low in DDT,” Burnett said. The insecticide — banned in 1972 — is still found in the tissues of sea lions because their primary breeding ground in Southern California “…is right on top of this old DDT dump site,” Burnett said.
When condors feed on the carcass of a sea lion, that ingested DDT can cause the shells of condor eggs to be thin and brittle, and chicks may die before hatching.
“So elephant seals are a refreshing idea for us because they also have low lead content.”
Burnett prompted laughter when he said the group of condors coming to SLO County is called “the magnificent seven.”
“They’re not magnificent yet, but they’re pre-magnificent,” he added.
The condors are all about 2 years old and were raised in isolation at the Los Angeles Zoo, then moved to the Big Sur pen, he said. Once they’re brought to San Luis Obispo County the condors will be released from the holding pen one at a time.
The strategy is to let one fly free, “And when it establishes itself, it will come back to the pen and see its buddies. Then we’ll let another one out, and another one. They’ll form a little gang,” Burnett said, “and they’ll start cruising around.”
These newly arrived birds are going to be exploring and testing their new environment, and they may be seen in and around Cambria and San Simeon.
“They are big, and they may come down near the coast and land in tall trees, he said. “We don’t know what they’re going to do; they may just hang out up in the mountains. But if you’ve been looking down a lot, after July, start looking up, because there's a good chance you might see one cruise by.”
Burnett urged North Coast residents to report sightings of these juvenile condors. They don’t get the reddish-orange coloring on their heads until they’re 5 years old, but the enormity of the birds makes them easy to spot.
“For us, it’s really good to know which bird is spotted — and where it was seen,” Burnett emphasized. If it is acting “strangely or lethargic, don’t try to save them, call us.”
Threat from lead poisoning
Burnett said there is a strategic reason for bringing condors to SLO County. State law bans the use of lead ammunition in condor habitat because of its toxicity if the birds eat lead.
Because many condors are tracked through GPS technology, biologists know some fly east into the San Joaquin Valley over private ranchland where ranchers and hunters kill coyote, deer and other animals using lead ammunition and leave the carcasses.
Condors feed on those carcasses. An estimated 30 condors have died from lead poisoning, and many others have been rushed to zoo hospitals to receive emergency care.
“Lead poisoning is the number one threat to the recovery program for condors,” Burnett asserted. “It has been scientifically authenticated for more than 10 years that feeding on carcasses killed with lead bullets sickens and kills condors.”
If the recovery program establishes condor strongholds up and down the Central Coast, the theory is that the birds will be less likely to fly east and, hence, have fewer opportunities to dine on lead-riddled carcasses, Burnett said.
Where to see them now
View the seven juvenile condors that will be released in San Luis Obispo County by visiting the Ventana Wilderness Society “Pen Cam”
Once the condors are released
Once the seven condors are released in July, the Ventana Wilderness Society asks the public to call if a condor is spotted, so the birds’ activities can be tracked.
Each condor has an easy-to-read identification number on its wings. Providing the ID number and color of the tag is helpful.
The VWS phone is (831) 620-0702. VWA biologist Joe Burnett can be reached directly at (831) 747-4104.
COPPER BULLET PROGRAM
The Ventana Wilderness Society is encouraging people to switch from lead to copper ammunition, which biologist Joe Burnett said is as accurate, or more accurate, than lead bullets. The VWS has a “raffle” program to give away copper ammunition. Learn more here.