The Cambrian

Condors are staging a comeback near Cambria

Joe Burnett and a winged friend share a rocky perch in the Big Sur backcountry, just north of the San Luis Obispo-Monterey county line, in 2015.
Joe Burnett and a winged friend share a rocky perch in the Big Sur backcountry, just north of the San Luis Obispo-Monterey county line, in 2015. Special to The Cambrian

Seven juvenile male California condors have been flying free over hillsides in northern San Luis Obispo County since they were released into the wild there one by one during the 2015-16 fall/winter season, according to Joe Burnett, coordinator for Ventana Wildlife Society’s condor program.

“Yes, we’ve got some birds in your ’hood,” the biologist said with a laugh during a phone interview May 18.

Burnett will talk about those condors and the California Condor Recovery Program during a presentation that starts at 6:30 p.m. Friday, May 27, in the multipurpose room of Cambria Grammar School, 3223 Main St.

The lecture is sponsored by the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

Big birds

Condors are North America’s largest land bird and are listed as endangered. They’ve been brought back from near extinction through vigorous captive breeding programs in various zoos and release programs in Arizona, the Pinnacles, Big Sur, San Luis Obispo County and Southern California (the latter done by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the entire program).

There are nearly 240 birds in the wild now, up from the 27 captured in 1987 as the last of their species.

There are about 200 birds in captivity. Nesting and breeding have been so successful that, Burnett said, for the first time, the number of new baby condors added earlier this year meant the total population in the wild was actually growing.

These days, about one-third of the condors in the wild are tracked by GPS, Burnett said, which is less intrusive than the less expensive radio transmitters that were state-of-the-art equipment when the breeding programs began. Even though the “local” condors will range far, the birds in the program have nearly always come back to the site where they were released, according to the scientist.

Burnett and his peers are hopeful those breeding and nesting behaviors will transfer to the Central Coast. He said that, so far, the indications have been very good.

“This is primo habitat” for the big birds, the biologist said. “It’s an area of the coast we feel will be really important to the condors in the long term.”

New home

In their prime, condors nested in San Luis Obispo County, “and there’s a lot of foraging area there,” Burnett explained. Condors are scavengers that feed primarily on the carcasses of dead animals, which includes marine mammals. “We’ve documented condors feeding on a dead whale for months.”

The condors seem to agree that their new home turf is a good area.

“Within an hour of the first release” in the hills east of San Simeon, Burnett said, four other condors showed up from 40 miles away. “We didn’t realize how in tune condors are with other birds” in other areas.

It’s a great chance for me to show people the maps of where the birds are going, and photos of what we’re doing, what the birds are doing. It’s an intimate story of how we got these birds back.

Joe Burnett, coordinator for Ventana Wildlife Society’s condor program

Then, “some up-and-coming pairs immediately came down and started hanging out … it didn’t take long.”

One young pair already has made a trial run at nesting, which didn’t take. That’s fairly common for raptors, Burnett said. “Sometimes the eggs don’t hatch …. maybe the eggs weren’t fertile.” But he fully expects that, in the spirit of practice-makes-perfect, the young condor couple will try, try again, probably during the nesting season this year.

Burnett said the Ventana Wilderness Society has five more birds (mostly females, this time) awaiting release in this area during the 2016-17 fall and winter season. “We’re the only nonprofit releasing condors in California.”

He said he’s looking forward to speaking in Cambria on Friday. “It’s a great chance for me to show people the maps of where the birds are going, and photos of what we’re doing, what the birds are doing. It’s an intimate story of how we got these birds back.”

Kathe Tanner: 805-927-4140

Did you just see a condor?

According to Joe Burnett of Ventana Wildlife Society’s condor program, observers can sometimes mistake golden eagles and turkey vultures for condors, but there are distinct differences.

The first and most obvious is size: According to Defenders.org, a condor’s wingspan can be 9.5 feet (longer than a ping pong table!). A golden eagle’s wingspan is about 7.5 feet, and a vulture’s is approximately 6 feet.

Defenders.org says a condor is “black in color with white underwing patches,” which are often triangular and quite distinctive.

A condor “sports a bald head with very few feathers. The color of the head varies from white to reddish purple. The bare head is an adaptation for hygiene, since they eat dead and rotting meat and must, for the most part, stick their heads into the carcasses to feed. As unappetizing as this may seem … scavengers like condors are vital to the natural ecosystem. They are nature’s cleaning crew.”

If you go

Joe Burnett, coordinator for Ventana Wildlife Society’s condor program, will give a presentation starting at 6:30 p.m. Friday, May 27, in the Cambria Grammar School multipurpose room, 3223 Main St., between the intersections of Eton Road and Highway 1/Ardath Drive. For details on the event sponsored by the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, call 805-801-0773.

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