Releasing Condors: Not So Easy

California condor #430 in the chaparrel.

California condor #430 in the chaparrel.

On Friday, September 18, 2009, we attempted to release three more California condors to the wild at our condor reintroduction site in Baja California, Mexico. We had conditioned the three new birds, numbers 430, 436, and 446, in the large aviary with our adult mentor, Xewe, since they arrived at the site from the Wild Animal Park on March 19. The threesome was transferred a few weeks ago to the release pen situated atop a 2,000-foot ridge, where they could become accustomed to the sights and sounds of the area and see previously released condors use the food and water available to them once they were free. New tags and transmitters were attached on the night of September 13 by the field crew and they were ready to go. However…

Condor #446 in the release pen.

Condor #446 in the release pen.

This simple scenario is overshadowed by the reality that older condors in the free-flying group have worked out their social status differences, for the most part, and any newcomers must go through an initiation that can be rough, or at least intimidating. So, after opening the 6-foot pen door at 3:30 a.m. on September 17, one of the mid-level, older birds, #362, entered the pen when there was enough light and began harassing #430, driving him out of the pen.

The older condors roost on top of the release pen.

The older condors roost on top of the release pen.

With sort of a forced release, he flew to a hillside a hundred or so yards to the south and began to climb. From a higher vantage point, he was soon able to fly back to the vicinity of the release pen but not without drawing the attention of other older birds that took turns approaching and investigating him up close.

Condor #436 on release day.

Condor #436 on release day.

After all the attention (at times there were seven condors playing on the release aviary roof netting), one of the release birds, #446, remained in the pen overnight, one slept in the tall pines toward the cliff, and one, #436, roosted overnight on top of the pen. Over the next few days all seemed to settle in a more normal release routine, with the newcomers taking short exploratory flights and tentatively feeding in and around the established birds at carrion we strategically placed out under the cover of darkness.

Now we hope for a smooth transition over time as they practice flying, learn where to find food, water, roosts, and seek acceptance within the group.

Mike Wallace is a conservation program manager for the San Diego Zoo.

California Condor Recovery Program

10 Responses to Releasing Condors: Not So Easy

  1. Thank you for sharing about the condors. I’ve read in past articles and what not, how difficult it can be to reintroduce them to the wild, and for some of them to learn the survival skills needed to make it in the wild, not to mention the lead poisoning that a lot of the end up facing. I love condors, and thank you again Mike for sharing their release with us.

  2. I supposed I’d never really thought of the problems with introducing birds back into the wild. I’m glad to see that they have been introduced in a sympathic manner and by people who obviously care both for the birds and the best of the species.

    Thanks for the great update and keep up the good work.

  3. Thanks for the great condor blog. This is such an interesting conservation program. I look forward to hearing more.

  4. word Linda! I was like at the edge of my seat just reading…whew man these blogs can be soo informative it just makes like your actually there! Mike i guess nature will take its place…thanks for the update!

  5. Thank you for the insightful blog outlining the challenges they face. Will the more established condors eventually allow them to share their space in peace?

  6. To #5 Kathy in Canada….

    Will the older condors in the established population eventually allow the newly released condors to share their space? Yes! Each condor eventually works its way into the group and, over time, they move higher up in status and get a greater share of resources like food, roosting positions, and eventually territories and mates. But in the short term, they are at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

  7. Thank you for answering my question Mike and your reply is very reassuring. It would be a sad world without the condors, such a unique and beautiful species. Please keep us informed on how the young condors are progressing.

  8. interesting post mike, thanks! your blog reminded me how everything isn’t as simple as it sounds or as we think it is. it seems like most animals have to go through this initiation process and work their way into the group and learn to know their place in it until they can work their way up to a higher status!!nature has a way of working everything out as it should be. AND, with people like you to help in the process, success is that much more possible! what interesting jobs you all have! a love for your particular species and the knowledge, and studies, research, etc. AND, the will and ambition to pursue your interest. if it wasn’t for people like you, we wouldn’t know nearly as much about the different species in our world!! thanks!

  9. On a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon last year, we spotted two Condors from the release program high on the cliffs. It was a highlight of the trip for everyone. Thanks for all the care & effort to help bring back this amazing species.

  10. are california condors native to l.a

    Moderator’s note: Yes indeed! They are native Californians.