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Once almost extinct, California condors are thriving in Pinnacles National Park

California condor 606 is harassed by a peregrine falcon at Pinnacles National Park.
California condor 606 is harassed by a peregrine falcon at Pinnacles National Park. Special to The Tribune

Thirty years ago this month, the last wild California condor was captured as part of an effort to save one of the most endangered species on Earth.

Their total population had dwindled to just 27 birds, all housed in two captive breeding facilities at the Los Angeles Zoo and San Diego Wild Animal Park.

The cause of the decline of these New World vultures, North America’s largest flying land bird with a wingspan of more than 9 feet, was primarily exposure to lead from ammunition fragments in carcasses they ate.

This and other threats, such as thin-shelled eggs — the same condition that caused the rapid decrease in the number of bald eagles and peregrine falcons — nearly made them a memory. When birds ingest prey contaminated by DDE, a metabolite of DDT, it prevents normal calcium deposition during eggshell formation, resulting in thin-shelled eggs that became susceptible to breakage during incubation.

At the time, a lot of ornithologists thought the condor would follow in the footsteps of the passenger pigeon and go extinct. Biologists and many others hoped that by raising condors in captivity and later releasing them into the wild, they could give this species a second chance. Thankfully, as time went on, the captive condor program worked and now produces as many as 20 chicks a year, which is amazing since female condors only lay one egg per nesting attempt every 1 to 2 years.

Through the tireless work of dedicated naturalists, the total world population of California condors increased to 446 as of 2016, with a wild population of 276 and a captive population of 170 that continues to produce chicks. There are 166 living wild in Central and Southern California, 76 call Arizona and Utah their home and 34 are thriving in Baja California.

A large population of wild condors exists at Pinnacles National Park, which currently co-manages 86 of the birds with the Ventana Wildlife Society. The Pinnacles condors have commingled with the condors in Big Sur and have effectively become one central California flock. These birds do not migrate, but their territory has been expanding over the years.

They’ve been seen as far north as Livermore in the Bay Area and as far south as Santa Barbara County. I have seen them flying over the Point Buchon trail near Montaña de Oro State Park, recognizable by numbered tags on their wings.

Condors have a mysterious ability to find thermals, or spirals of the wind, which can carry them thousands of feet into the sky without a single flap of their enormous wings. When the weather turns cold, these birds raise their neck feathers like a turtleneck sweater to keep warm.

Believe it or not, if it gets too hot, condors and other vultures will urinate on one of their legs. As the water in the urine evaporates like a swamp cooler, it cools the blood circulating in the leg, which drops the condor’s body temperature. Needless to say, because of this type of cooling and since they eat carrion, condors bathe frequently. It’s believed that condors can live to be 60 years old. However, none of the condors alive now are older than 40.

While at Pinnacles National Park last week, I took photographs of Condor 606 as it was being harassed by a peregrine falcon.

The park’s website says of the condor: “606 is male with a past link to the Central Coast, was laid by Big Sur condors 168 and 208. Due to research conducted at the time, his egg was swapped with a zoo-laid egg and hatched at the Los Angeles Zoo on April 22, 2011. After being released on Jan. 29, 2013, he made the condor biologists’ job stress-free by safely perching in a tree and finding food on his first day. He has quickly integrated into the flock since then, making regular flights to and from Pinnacles and Big Sur.”

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Celebrate Earth Day on Saturday, April 22, by joining PG&E employees for a work project at Montaña de Oro State Park. The event is one of a many of service projects sponsored by PG&E and the California State Parks Foundation.

Be sure to dress for outdoor work with long pants, long-sleeved shirt, sturdy shoes, hat, gloves and sunscreen.

Snacks and lunch will be provided. Bring a refillable water bottle. Rangers will provide tools and supervision. Please register at the California State Parks website, www.calparks.org/help/earth-day/earth-day-registration.html.

John Lindsey’s column is special to The Tribune. He is PG&E’s Diablo Canyon marine meteorologist and a media relations representative. Email him at pgeweather@pge.com or follow him on Twitter: @PGE_John.

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