Since 2015, 18 juvenile California condors have been released from an enormous fly pen in the rugged, bouldered mountains high above San Simeon. The latest releases of these endangered birds include Minerva (female) and Pigwidgeon (male), who were set free on Nov. 13.
Of the 18 released birds, 15 have survived, according to Joe Burnett, senior wildlife biologist with the Ventana Wildlife Society (VWS) in Big Sur. One of the lost birds’ demise is attributed to lead poisoning; the other is due to drowning in a large uncovered water tank while trying to get a drink. The third bird’s death is not yet understood.
When the four additional juveniles in this year’s cohort — currently waiting release above San Simeon — fly free (perhaps before Christmas), it will bring the total number of recently released juveniles soaring the Central Coast to 19.
“San Simeon is going to be a stop for all the condors,” Burnett said in an email interview. “This is one of the big goals, to basically have an area that is adopted by all the birds. Condors are very social... so just by habit, the San Simeon birds will lead them here (in the next few years).”
The four about to be released — like the last two — are named after characters from the Harry Potter series: Tonks (female), Sirius (male), Narcissa (female) and Cedric (male). They were all raised in captivity at the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho.
The six juveniles are just under 2 years of age, but they are fully grown, featuring jumbo 9 1/2-foot wingspans. However, they will not be mature enough to sport the stark red- orange heads or to be of breeding age until they are approximately 5 years old.
The release area, near the Pine Mountain region 10 miles east of San Simeon, features hollowed out trees and craggy caves, ideal for condor mating and for rearing their young. Condors don’t build nests; they find suitable existing venues.
Presently, there are an estimated 160 California condors flying free in central and southern California, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Roughly 88 of those birds are known to travel to and from Pinnacles, Big Sur and San Simeon. All released juveniles are outfitted with GPS technologies, so collaborators can monitor their movements.
The gravest threat to this prehistoric species is from lead poisoning. Condors are not raptors; they do not hunt but rather they feed on carrion (dead animals). When a rabbit or deer or other game has been shot with lead ammunition, and a condor makes a meal out of that animal, the condor may become seriously ill. Sick birds are transported to the LA Zoo for a painful and difficult hospitalization/rehabilitation period.
In fact, over two-thirds of condor fatalities since 1990 have been caused by lead poisoning, scientists with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research report.
The VWS has worked to mitigate that problem by giving away non-lead ammo; over 6,000 boxes of lead-free (copper) bullets have been distributed to hunters and ranchers in the California condor range since 2012. On July 1, 2019, all of California will be considered the “condor range,” and using lead ammo will be illegal.
To obtain free non-lead ammo, email your full name, address, phone number and choice of rifle caliber and grain to firstname.lastname@example.org. The VWS is also offering a rimfire exchange; VWS will provide non-lead .22 LR or .17 HMR in exchange for lead rounds from hunters and others.
For more information on non-lead ammo and the Ventana Wildlife Society, call 831-800-07423.