I have been on the trail of the California condor for some years now. And what a trail it is, from shimmering cactus-studded deserts baking under the relentless hammer of the Mexican sun to the desolate jagged beauty of the Sierra Mountains to the ancient alpine forests of northern Baja California, Mexico, crystallized beneath a silencing white shroud of fog and snow. These are the worlds that this mighty vulture surveys from on high with its enormous black wings, extraordinary eyesight, and an inquisitive and engaging intelligence.
As remarkable and inspiring as the condor and its wild domain are, so too are the heroic efforts of San Diego Zoo Global and its many dedicated partners that have struggled for decades to haul this unique species back from the abyss of extinction. And from a population of just 22 birds at their lowest ebb in the 1980s, this year we have reached a landmark 400 wild and captive condors.
I joined the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research to provide vital information on the social behaviors, movement patterns, and habitat requirements of the condors that we are reintroducing to their former range in Baja California. Collecting data on free-ranging condors is notoriously difficult. Fortunately, I am equipped with the latest cutting-edge technologies that have opened an unprecedented window onto condor behaviors within their natural environment.
Miniature GPS devices attached to the bird’s wings continuously acquire and transmit data on their flight patterns. An array of weather stations positioned throughout the condor’s range provides detailed information on the meteorological conditions that influence their movement. Analysis of satellite imagery and digital topographic models of the condor’s environment enables me to construct a detailed picture of their habitat use and requirements.
Remote video cameras installed at condor feeding stations allow me to observe and analyze their social interactions without having to wait in the field or disturb the birds with my presence. The science of ecology is being driven by these examples of technological advances, and San Diego Zoo Global prides itself on being a leader in the application of state-of-the-art techniques for conservation research.
My studies have confirmed that condors range hundreds of miles in a single day while exploring and searching for food carcasses and that these flights are typically conducted by subadults before they settle into core home ranges. Condors are able to fly for long periods without expending much energy by harnessing the strong thermal winds generated by mountains and ridgelines to soar with the efficiency of an albatross. Condors also possess a remarkable spatial memory map, returning from long-distance flights directly back to their communal roosts.
I have found myself amazed by condor curiosity and playfulness, as well as the complexity of their tight-knit society. Birds that do not develop appropriate social behaviors at an early age do not successfully integrate into condor society, and such ostracism results in their early demise from predation or starvation. By characterizing the dynamics of condor “pecking orders,” I have determined which attributes confer high or low dominance status. I have learned that each bird has a personality, and condors act much like human teenagers and politicians—continuously jostling and squabbling for rank, resources, and respect.
Some have argued that disproportionate levels of resources are directed toward condor recovery. Indeed, after a field season of freezing temperatures, putrid carcasses, and obstreperous equipment, I have on occasion questioned my own involvement. However, when you stand on a mountaintop or a canyon and this magnificent buzzard with its 9-foot wingspan suddenly swoops over you and completely owns the sky, all sense of doubt immediately evaporates and is replaced with awe, admiration, and hope—hope for the survival of the species and hope that future generations will also have the opportunity to experience condors in the wild. In an age of extinction and loss, the condor is a vital link to our increasingly diminished ecological heritage, an iconic expression of evolution’s genius, and a much-needed example of a conservation success story.
James Sheppard is an ecologist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Wild Condor Chick Gets Own TV Show.