Local wildlife enthusiasts are grateful this Thanksgiving season as the endangered California condor continues its remarkable recovery from near extinction in the 1980s.
In the North Coast locality an even dozen juvenile condors have been released in the mountains high above San Simeon over the past year.
Late in 2015, seven juvenile condors were released from the rugged Pine Mountain/Rocky Butte area, and within the past two weeks, five more juveniles were released from that same remote fly pen. They are now soaring free with GPS technologies attached to their wings.
GPS allows the Ventana Wildlife Society in Big Sur to closely monitor the birds’ movements.
All 12 of these giant birds, with their 9 1/2 -foot wingspans, were raised in captivity; so, being released in San Luis Obispo County — the VWS senior wildlife biologist Joe Burnett explains — means the 12 will likely make our county their preferred home.
After about five years (they are more than 3 years old now), they mature, and their heads turn reddish; at that time they are expected to mate and have chicks in the caves and crannies high above San Simeon.
When the Chimney Fire raged close to their fly pen in mid-August, those five juveniles (the “Fab Five”) — that had been there six months and were ready to be released — were relocated to another condor recovery site, the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge, south of Maricopa.
On Thursday, Nov. 3, the condors were brought back in two vehicles from Bitter Creek, and on the way through Cambria, biologist Burnett sat down for an interview on the picnic tables in the north parking lot of Leffingwell.
The more socialized they are, the more comfortable they are when they get into the wild.
VWS senior wildlife biologist Joe Burnett, on recently released condors
Did the disruption of relocation and return affect how the birds will adapt and adjust to their new surroundings?
“It wasn’t ideal that they were evacuated,” Burnett said, “but there is a silver lining. At Bitter Creek, they were in a large pen with a lot of different aged birds, so they had good pre-release exposure to older birds.
“The more socialized they are, the more comfortable they are when they get into the wild. They are going into a very complex hierarchy, so the more we can introduce them to other birds and they can learn to speak the condor language, the better for the birds.”
The actual release of the five returned juveniles — two in the second week of November, three in the third — was noteworthy. The last two birds, which finally made their exit late in the third week this month, had preferred to stay in the large pen even after the other three were out.
“This apprehensiveness is a very good trait to possess if you’re a young condor,” said Burnett, who is in his 20th year of stewardship with the condor captive breeding program and release issues. (Before that, Burnett worked on the American bald eagle recovery program in Big Sur.)
As luck would have it, 10 wild condors, apparently down from Big Sur or Pinnacles, showed just up as the five were in the process of being released. Burnett called the visitors “a welcoming committee,” adding that the “older birds will help shepherd (the five) into the flock, which is just another added bonus.”
Burnett said he is gratified that those many years ago he was offered an opportu—nity to relocate from West Virginia to Big Sur to help shepherd the resurgence of species — first the bald eagle and later condors.
“When I got here, a light turned on, my mind melted, and I had that epiphany moment — this is what I’m supposed to do.”