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Learning to be condors

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Trailblazing redwoods condors learn what it takes to be free
A2 has its weight checked on a scale near carcasses placed at the release site where the birds return to feed. The condors’ weight is closely monitored, this [Photo courtesy NCCRP]
Condor A0 suns itself at the Yurok facility in Northern California. [Photo courtesy Northern California Condor Recovery Project]
Condor A3 gets a weight check. [Photo courtesy NCCRP]
Two condors atop enclosures at the Northern California Condor Recovery Project. [Photo courtesy Northern California Condor Recovery Project]

Condor enthusiasts from around the world are monitoring the progress of three California condors released near the mouth of the Klamath River in May.

This comeback of the largest land bird in North America — set against the backdrop of the tallest trees in the world — makes for compelling drama, with hope at center stage, right alongside the condors.

“These are the first condors to fly Pacific Northwest skies in 130 years, and with no one about to show them how to be a condor, they have to work it out for themselves — and it’s a steep learning curve,” said Tiana Williams-Claussen, Yurok Tribe wildlife program director.

Williams-Claussen and Yurok Condor Restoration Program Manager Chris West began working on condor reintroduction in 2008, developing partnerships with Redwood National and State Parks to form the core of the Northern California Condor Restoration Program, part of a multistate network of agencies, zoos, universities, organizations, private companies and individuals committed to saving the critically endangered species.

Many years ago, six captive-bred condors were released together, in part “to satisfy that desire from the press to see the big release,” West said. “But not this time. The scientists and biologists are running this show.”

West says staggered releases work better, as the social draw of still-captive condors helps keep the freed birds loosely tethered to the Yurok's release management facility, which enables his team to better observe and track individual birds, who are outfitted with GPS transmitters.

Before release, the 3-year-old condors spent weeks observing wild turkey vultures and ravens feeding on carcasses placed outside their enclosure at the release facility. Now the condors venture out into the redwoods and return at will to feed and hang out.

Once sated, they bathe and preen, sometimes “beaking” through the fence with still-captive condors awaiting release, or they'll perch with open wings, “sunning” themselves. The two freed males, who have formed a strong bond, sometimes twine their long necks together and cuddle up like kittens for a nap. They also wrestle in the tall grass and were spotted rolling a skull around in play.

Williams-Claussen refers to the “coolness” of “prey-go-neesh,” the Yurok word for condor. “They’re intelligent and very curious, so they’re always getting into something.” Some biologists describe young condors as “a pack of unruly teenagers,” reminding them more of primates than birds.

While it might seem like a free-for-all around the carcasses, there's a definite hierarchy, and the condors rule. With a nearly 10-foot wingspan, when condors charge open-winged, the turkey vultures scatter. Sometimes mischievous ravens grab a condor's tail feathers — and the condor whirls around on them. The Yurok’s live Condor Cam makes for lively entertainment (www.yuroktribe.org/yurok-condor-live-feed).

Condor language

Captive-raised condors socialize with adult “mentor” condors, who help them learn “condor language,” which is believed to be quite complex. Condor biologists say they’ve “not come close to decoding” the mysteries of condors’ nonverbal communication.

Lacking a voice box, condors don’t really vocalize (they just make some occasional hisses and grunts), so it’s all about body language. Tilts of the head, eye positions and body postures all convey meaning. And as they can live into their 60s, communication skills are accumulated throughout their long lives.

“Condors can inflate the air sacs in their neck and head, usually to show dominance or to attract a mate,” said Robin Jenkins, a monitoring technician at the Northern California Condor Restoration Program. “They can also change their head color at will, but you’d have to be a condor to know what it means.”

“They're a fascinating species,” said West, who has decades of experience with condors. “They do unexpected things. In Big Sur juvenile condors in the enclosure would beg to unrelated free condors, who would then come up to the fence and regurgitate to them.”

Flying lessons

Wild condors fledge at 6 months and then depend on their parents for flying lessons for another year. Captive-raised birds miss out on this crucial training, so for these first free condors in the region, turkey vultures once again have come to the rescue by unwittingly demonstrating both flight and landing techniques.

For tens of thousands of years — from Mexico up through British Columbia — the condors’ daily quest for food began after the sun had heated the earth’s surface enough to generate thermals of warm rising air they could ride. Condors often gather at a cliff’s edge and then dive into these updrafts, allowing the winds to lift them as they soar in circles within these columns to achieve their bird's eye view of the world below. They've been observed as high as 15,000 feet, and they possess extraordinary visual acuity. Condors don't miss much.

Traveling up to 150 miles a day, condors ride thermals for hours, barely flapping a wing. They’re the ultimate low energy fliers, which is one reason they can go long stretches between meals. Though this lack of wing flapping means it “takes young birds more time to learn how to read the wind to stay aloft and in control,” West said.

When the open sky beckoned, the first two Yurok condors answered the call. The boys flew right off — A2 returned after a few hours, but A3 sojourned 10 miles away and didn't make it back for two weeks after being grounded by harsh weather. (The birds are identified by tags on their wings.)

Now A3 has better flight skills, and West has observed him utilizing “directional wind” to gain altitude. “They don’t necessarily need thermals. There’s enough instinct there. A3 is using the landscape the same way the wild condors were observed doing it in the past. These birds will become the teachers and show us how condors utilized this habitat.”

When condor A0 was released, she initially stuck around but eventually set out on her own and has been gone for a few weeks. Her GPS tracker indicates she’s holed up in a remote part of the forest. She’s closely monitored — and she's learning how to hop upward and fly between the trees.

“Young wild condors hook up with juvenile groups, and each juvenile will have this knowledge about a piece of the landscape,” West explained, “so they have this social network and share information with each other. They're lifelong learners. And as more individuals are released, captive-raised condors will have this population to go into that has all this knowledge, but for these first birds it’s a huge challenge.”

As the condors become more adept in flight — and more familiar with the region — they’ll begin flying off for longer stretches, West said, “so we’re enjoying this time that we have to watch them so closely.”

A fourth condor will be released in July, and several more will fly free come fall. Then for the next 20 years, up to eight condors will be released from the Yurok’s condor compound each year.

Survival in the wild

Condor pairs produce only one chick every two years — so after more than a century of struggle against impossible odds, and with just 22 wild condors left on Earth, prey-go-neesh was slipping away. Poaching, poisoning and habitat loss had taken a severe a toll, so in the late 1980s the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service captured the last birds hanging on in Southern California and used them to seed breeding programs at zoos.

This was controversial. Some conservationists believed captive-raised condors could never survive in the wild.

Yet the breeding programs exceeded expectations, and condors were released back into the wild after 15 years. Today over 300 condors fly free in multiple Western locations. The biggest hurdle to establishing self-sustaining populations is the lead shot condors ingest when feeding on gut piles left behind by hunters. Half of all wild condor mortality is from lead poisoning.

Lead shot was banned in California three years ago, and efforts are underway to achieve similar bans in other states. Condors only eat carrion, so they’re especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, though numerous wildlife species supplement their diets with carrion and succumb to lead poisoning as well.

Williams-Claussen explained the Yurok's traditional “World Renewal Ethic,” which underscores her tribe’s commitment to help keep the world in balance. This ethic drives their condor restoration efforts, forest rehabilitation projects, efforts to remove salmon-killing dams from the Klamath River and more. “Prey-go-neesh historically fed on salmon, so the salmon runs are really important too.”

Learn more about the Yurok condor program at www.facebook.com/YurokCondors

Reach Illinois Valley freelance writer Annette McGee Rasch at annetterasch@yahoo.com.