The California Condor Clings to Survival with the Help of the San Diego Zoo Safari Park

From One Bird to the Whole Species

The first California condor to reside at the San Diego Safari Park was a rescued animal with a crippled wing. That particular individual lived out the rest of its days at the park starting in 1929. Over the years, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park has worked extensively to perfect its techniques in caring for these animals, becoming a leader in one of the most impressive conservation projects ever attempted in the United States.

In 1982, the California condor species was struggling to survive, and that is the mild way to put it. With just twenty-seven individuals left in the world, the species was in crisis. When the government of the United States of America gave the go-ahead to begin a propagation initiative to try to save the species, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, being no stranger to these birds due to its history in caring for them and its location in the middle of their natural homeland, constructed six free-flight enclosures as part of this species’ recovery program.

The California Condor took the first step toward a second chance at the end of March in 1983 when Sisquoc, the first chick to hatch in a zoo, emerged from his shell, and by 1987, the last known wild condor was captured with the intention of breeding and reintroducing the species back into the wild.

With the entire population of California Condors distributed between the Los Angeles Zoo and the San Diego Zoo, the species was officially extinct in the wild.

A California Condor atop its perch at the San Diego Zoo.

A California Condor atop its perch at the San Diego Zoo.

Overcoming Obstacles

Even with the success of Sisquoc’s hatching, no one knew if the captive breeding program would work, making the decision to capture all of the remaining birds controversial. Slow to mature, California Condors do not reach breeding age until they are between six and seven years old. Even so, once they do breed, the females usually lay just a single egg at a time. And, on top of the low clutch count, they only lay that one egg every one to two years.

Progress was sure to be slow.

At the breeding facilities in California, where all of the condors were held, a new strategy was put into place. When a female laid an egg, personnel removed the egg from the nest, instinctively or hormonally causing the female to lay a second egg, and, sometimes, even a third. The “extra” eggs were incubated and raised by the staff members devoted to seeing this species’ survival. Overcoming this obstacle was just one challenge the staff faced.

Many species of birds, including California condors, have a cognitive ability called “imprinting” in which a young individual will bond with its caretakers. Naturally, a chick’s caretakers are most often its parents, and therefore, imprinting is a survival skill. But, in this environment, in which many of the chicks were raised by humans with the intention of someday being released into the wild, imprinting could become a detriment. After all, the someday-released animals could not be flocking to hiking humans in search of food or company. Therefore, traditional hand raising was not an option.

Instead, another technique was developed in order to prevent this from occurring. Hand puppets molded in the shape of mature condor heads were worn by the staff members as they fed and cared for the chicks. To learn important social skills, they were introduced to adult condors and played tapes of condors’ vocalizations in hopes that would aid in development.

 

A New Beginning. A Bright Future.

The true test of the entire program’s success came in early 1992, when the first captive-bred California condors were released into the January sky. The species had been extinct in the wild for roughly five years, and never before had a conservation project so large been undertaken.

Because individual condors tend to look similar, especially at a distance, each bird was fitted with a number attached to their wings for easy identification and a transmitter for tracking and monitoring. Over the next several years, more condors were released into different areas across California, with others released in Arizona and Mexico. Those individuals began to thrive, even breeding on their own in their natural environment.

In fact, as of May 2013, the total population of California Condors was up to four hundred thirty five individuals! That’s a long way from the twenty-seven birds counted just thirty years before. In fact, even Sisquoc continues to help his species recover as he has bonded with a female named Shatash, and the two birds have become a successful breeding pair, contributing to the one hundred sixty five chicks hatched at the San Diego Zoo.

Be a Part of the Success

Each year, more condors are bred and released by zoos and other facilities, and the population continues to increase, but this story of survival and conservation is far from over. The species is still labeled as critically endangered on the IUCN red list. While the recovery of the California Condor has begun through the efforts of professionals from the San Diego Zoo and other partner organizations, they need our help too.

One of the most dangerous threats these animals face is lead poisoning. Because condors feed on carrion, a term that refers to already-dead animals, they can sometimes ingest lead-tainted meat and even entire bullets, leading to the poisoning of their systems. Lead poisoning unfortunately causes paralysis in the digestive tract, killing the animal slowly through starvation. So, if you hunt, be sure to use non-lead ammunition to help prevent the risk of poisoning of scavengers like the California Condor.

Another simple and fun solution? Continue to visit places like the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park, as well as other facilities, dedicated to the future of this amazing animal. Your admission fee helps pay for education and conservation efforts!

Want to learn more about the California Condor? Check out these links below! And, thanks for visiting Zoos Are Important!

Learning Links:
San Diego Zoo’s California Condor Live Cam
San Diego California Condor Blog