Tagged Birds

And we’re not talking graffiti.

In my last post, I wrote about “banding” birds. Scientists place aluminum bands on birds to collect information about them.

I wrote that New World Vultures could not be banded because they urinate on their legs and corrode the aluminum which causes injury to their legs.

The California Condor is a New World Vulture so they could not be banded. But even more importantly–when it comes to tracking birds–the California Condor became extinct in the wild in 1987 when the last wild condor was taken into captivity.

The population of the California Condor, the largest land bird in North America, had dangerously decreased due to the combined effects of DDT, poaching, lead poisoning and the (still happening for many birds) habitat destruction.

The captive birds were bred at the San Diego Wild Animal Park and the Los Angeles Zoo. However, this was not without its difficulties.

California Condors take six years to reach sexual maturity. Once they do, the female will lay one egg every other year. However, if the egg is somehow lost, the female will “double clutch,” that is, lay a second egg. The breeders in San Diego and Los Angeles took advantage of this fact. They would remove the first egg which prompted the female to lay another. The first would be reared by condor puppets, while the second may be reared by the parent condors.

In 1991, the breeding programs were successful enough to reintroduce California Condors into the wild. Numbered and colored tags were attached to the condors’ wings. These tags, visible from above or below the wing, along with a lightweight radio transmitters, allow researches to track and monitor the birds. In Central California, this tracking is done by the Ventana Wildlife Society.

Katherine and I saw one of the volunteer trackers parked off of Highway 1 last year during one of our trips back from Big Sur. We’d seen California Condors that day and we pulled over so Katherine could talk to the young woman.

California Condor seen on Highway 1 in California. You can see the tag number and the radio transmitter above it. (Dec. 2, 2020)

Katherine described to the young woman where we’d seen the condors and she shared with us information about where else to look for them along the coast. (Hint: Look for dead seals! 😳)

The cool thing about seeing the condors is that you can look them up online by their tag number and color at CondorSpotter.

Looking up the California Condor Katherine and I had seen at CondorSpotter

As of this writing, there were 498 total California Condors. They remain one of the world’s rarest bird species. They are officially “critically endangered.”

However, California Condors have been successfully breeding in the wild since 2003. They continue to be bred in captivity and released into the wild. Central California has 85 California Condors living in the wild.

The greatest threat to condors continues to be lead poisoning. In California, lead-based ammunition is not allowed near condor habitats, however, condors are still being found with lead toxicosis. The Ventana Wildlife Society provides lead-free ammunition free to hunters as part of their program to “manage the lead threat.” Click here to read more about the threats to the condor population, including wildfires (American condors and their nests, as well as a research facility were lost in the Dolan fire), electrocution from power lines and micro trash.

Katherine and I feel fortunate that we have been able to see these beautiful birds soaring above us (or hanging around on the ground) during our trips down to Big Sur. Below are images of two we have seen. Look up their tag numbers on Condorspotter!

California Condor seen along Highway 1 (Dec. 4, 2020)
California Condor seen along Highway 1 (Dec. 4, 2020)
Not a California Condor seen along Highway 1.

Okay, so the last picture is not a California Condor. It’s my “namesake,” a Turkey Vulture. More than one person has gotten these two birds confused. They are both big New World Vultures. The Turkey Vulture’s wingspan can reach 6 feet while that of the California Condor can reach an amazing 9-1/2 feet!

However, as you can see from the photos above, the pattern of white feathers on the Turkey Vulture is pretty much the opposite of the pattern of white feathers on the California Condor. I can differentiate between the two by remembering that the California Condor’s white feathers are closer to its “shoulders” (if birds had shoulders, which they don’t). The Turkey Vulture’s white feathers are along their “triceps” all the way down to their “hands.”

The story of the California Condors is still being written. The final chapter will have them living self-sustained in the wild without any need of being managed. Unfortunately, we aren’t there yet.

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