In 1986, the last wild California condor was taken into captivity to join the twenty-two remaining condors, in an attempt to bolster the population through a captive breeding program. In fall 2012, Oakland Zoo joined the California Condor Recovery Program to help rehabilitate sick or injured condors. A holding facility was constructed on Zoo grounds and Veterinary staff members were trained in proper procedures for treating lead poisoned birds. On May 1, 2014, Oakland Zoo received and treated it’s first California condor suffering from lead posioning.
The California condor is one of the rarest bird species in the world. California condors are opportunistic scavengers that primarily feed on large mammal carcasses such as deer, elk, and marine mammals; however, they also consume smaller carrion such as squirrels and rabbits. California condors are among the largest flying birds in the world, with a wingspan measuring up to 9.5 feet. Adult condor males and females are identical in size and plumage, weigh from 17 to 24 pounds, and are predominantly black with prominent white underwing feathers. The head and neck are mostly bare of feathers, and the skin is gray grading into various shades of red, yellow, and orange. The heads of juveniles (1-3 years) are grayish-black, and their wing linings are mottled or completely dark. Adult feathering is attained between age 5 and 6 years of age.
California condors typically mate and choose nest sites during the winter (November-March). Each pair produces a single egg between late January and early April. Both parents are involved in incubation, taking turns either caring for the egg or finding food. The egg hatches after approximately 56 days of incubation. Both parents also feed and care for the offspring. Chicks leave the nest (fledge) at 5.5 to 7 months of age, but may not become fully independent until the following year.
California condors were widely distributed in North America in ancient times, from the West Coast to small populations in Florida and New York. The California Gold Rush had a huge impact on the condors, because so many settlers came to the West and upended the ecology of the land. By the late 1930s, California condors were only found in California, confined to a small area just north of Los Angeles. Lack of reproduction, inadequate food supply, contaminants, habitat loss, human disturbance, and direct persecution by humans were thought to be contributing to the condor population decline.
Following the controversial capture of the last twenty-two condors in 1986, California condors were thus absent from the wild until 1992 when the first eight captive-reared birds were released in Southern California. The reintroduction of birds continued in Arizona in 1996, Central California in 1997, and Northern Baja California, Mexico, in 2002. There are currently more than 400 condors in the world, with more than 200 free-flying wild birds distributed among five release sites.
While the recovery effort has been extremely successful, the wild condor population still requires extensive management. There are many threats to the survival of the species, including lead poisoning, micro-trash ingestion, trauma, DDE, and habitat loss; however, lead toxicosis is thought to be the overwhelming reason that the California condor population remains unable to sustain itself. The birds appear to become poisoned from lead fragments remaining in carcasses of animals that were shot using lead ammunition. Currently, all wild California condors are trapped at least once a year to be tested and treated (if necessary) for lead poisoning. In 2013 alone, more than 70 individual birds were treated for lead toxicosis, and several mortalities were confirmed to be due to lead poisoning.
Oakland Zoo is proud to be involved in the conservation of California condors. In 2013, the Zoo became the newest member of the California Condor Recovery Program, a multi-organizational group that is responsible for the management California condors. Amongst the Recovery Program partners, the Zoo is working closely with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the CA Department of Fish and Wildlife, Ventana Wildlife Society, Pinnacles National Park, and the Los Angeles Zoo. The California condor is an icon of the West, and serves a unique position in the ecosystem. Oakland Zoo is also uniquely positioned in California to assist with the condor population as it expands northward.
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