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 1930's, California condors were only found in California,confined to a small area just north of Los Angeles. Lack of reproduction,inadequate food supply, habitat loss, human disturbance, and direct persecution by humans were thought to be contributing to the condor population decline. In the 1980's, the most direct threat was DDT, affecting egg viability.
The critically endangered California condors were gathered, bred and raised in zoos. Their release and re-wilding in the mid-1990's was a great success.
Unfortunately, condors remain one of the most endangered species in the world, with only 290 in the wild today. Serious challenges hinder recovery and keep the population at risk. Threats to condor survival include lead poisoning from contaminated carcasses they feed on and micro-trash that young eat inadvertently. Pinnacles National Park joined the California Condor Recovery Program as a release and management site in 2003. The park currently co-manages 86 wild condors in central California with Ventana Wildlife Society.
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, DDT, and habitat loss; however, lead toxicosis is 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 observed or trapped at least once a year to be tested and treated (if necessary) for lead poisoning. Lead poisoning from spent lead ammunition continues to be the greatest cause of mortality in the wild population, representing approximately 50 percent of known causes of deaths from 1992 -2017, and continues to preclude recovery.
Captive Bred Releases
Pinnacles National Park Foundation is the only NPS unit that manages a release site for captive bred California condors. Juvenile condors are transferred to Pinnacles from captive breeding facilities (Los Angeles Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, Oregon Zoo, and World Center for Birds of Prey) at approximately 1.5 years old. Juveniles are then placed into a flight pen with an adult mentor bird and allowed to acclimate to their new environment for at least 2 months. The juveniles are outfitted with radio transmitters, vinyl ID tags, and allowed to leave the pen one at a time. Park biologists continue to closely monitor the juveniles’ behavior as they take their first flights in the wild, ensuring they find appropriate roost and feeding sites.
Each Pinnacles condor is outfitted with a visual ID tag, at least one radio transmitter and some are also given a GPS transmitter. These allow park biologists to track the movements and behaviors of the flock. Condor staff and volunteers can often be seen tracking along the trails within the park or along the roads in the surrounding areas. Pinnacles biologists regularly communicate with biologists from Ventana Wildlife Society, who track in the Big Sur area, and US Fish and Wildlife biologists, who track in southern California, to monitor the entire California flock. Additional sightings from the public help biologists track this far-ranging species.
Through tracking efforts, biologists are able to recover deceased condors from the field and submit them for necropsy and analysis in an attempt to determine the cause of death. Gaining an understanding of threats to the species assists the recovery program in addressing these hazards. A definitive cause of death was determined on 76 out of 100 condors recovered and the leading cause of death was lead poisoning, representing 30% of known condor mortalities. Efforts to reduce lead exposure in all wildlife have increased due to this understanding. Learn more about condors and lead poisoning.
Park biologists, working closely with Ventana Wildlife Society biologists, are specially trained and permitted to participate in biannual trapping of California condors in the spring and fall. During these trapping seasons, malfunctioning transmitters are replaced, measurements and samples are taken for research, and each condor’s blood is tested for lead levels. Blood lead levels are monitored because lead poisoning remains the number one factor in condor mortality. Condors with elevated lead levels are treated at Pinnacles, Los Angeles Zoo, or Oakland Zoo.
Educating the public about the plight of endangered species is a critical element to any recovery program. Current threats to condor survival are human induced and can be addressed through education and partnerships. Lead poisoning, from ingesting ammunition fragments in carcasses, continues to be the number one threat to condor survival and the recovery program as a whole. Since 2007, Pinnacles has partnered with the Institute for Wildlife Studies and surrounding communities to promote the use of non-lead ammunition for hunting and ranching operations.
In addition to these focused lead reduction efforts, biologists collaborate with the park’s interpretive branch to provide accurate and current educational programs to park visitors and school groups. Park biologists can often be seen tracking on trails, and are happy to answer questions about the condor program.
Beginning in the late fall, park biologists are busy identifying potential breeding pairs for next spring. Pairs are monitored for breeding displays and are closely observed to determine breeding territories. Once a nest is identified, biologists monitor and enter the nest to do monthly health checks on the chick until it is 4 months old, at which point the nestling is outfitted with a radio transmitter and vinyl ID tag. Chicks will remain in the nest until approximately 6 months, and will stay in their nesting area for several months after fledging, or lying from the nest. Biologists continue to monitor the nesting area until the fledgling is fully integrated into the flock.
Park biologists work with a variety of partners to answer questions about condor health, survivorship, and the recovery program in general.
Oakland Zoo’s Veterinary staff is trained to provide medical care, including lead chelation therapy, to wild condors that are deemed ill or injured by field biologists. Condors are treated at both theOakland Zoo Veterinary Hospital and the Steve and Jackie Kane Recovery Center.In addition to medical care of condors at the zoo, the Veterinary staff is actively involved with biologists in the field and at major universities, collaborating on projects to better define the threats to condors and find solutions to those threats. Several members of the Animal Care, Conservation, and Research Department staff are also trained in condor husbandry and are an integral part of the team caring for California condors in rehabilitation at the Zoo.
Many opportunities are planned to promote public awareness of California condors. Field biology workshops for middle and high school students will teach students to use GPS data from wild condors to analyze conservation problems. Condor Camp will allow students to spend time outdoors with condor biologists. A mobile condor bio-facts station is used for presentations both on Zoo grounds and in remote classrooms.
Condor Field Cameras
Oakland Zoo’s marketing department has worked closely with FedEx and Camzone to place the first cameras in the field to observe wild condors. The “Condor Cams” allow both field biologists and the public to observe condors in their natural habitat and have been invaluable tools to further condor research. Several television and radio pieces featuringZoo and Condor Recovery Program partners have also been coordinated by the marketing department, highlighting the plight of the condor. To see California condors in the wild or rehabilitating at the Zoo, people can go to our website’s live-cams.
Avoid Lead Bullets: If you do choose to hunt, use non-lead ammunition. For more information about non-lead ammunition, visit huntingwithnonlead.org and for more information on wildlife and lead visit our lead information page.
Clean the Habitat: Don’t litter yourself, and pickup micro-trash and all trash you see outdoors.
Travel and Learn: Head down the Big Sur Coast or inland to Pinnacles National Park to see these spectacular birds in flight.Then, tell others about your experience!
Help from Home: Be a citizen scientist and help condor recovery right from home. Go to www.condorwatch.org and review photos of condors and record your observations. You will help collect information from the photos that condor biologists on several condor recovery teams will have access too.
Report Poaching: Poachers undermine sound wildlife management, infringe on people’s privacy, and disrespect the good efforts of responsible hunters. If you have information about illegal shootings or trespass, call the Department of Fish and Game at 888-DFG-CALTIP (888-334-2258), 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Post Your Observations: If you’re visiting a park or other public lands and see rare wildlife or notable behaviors you think scientists might be interested in, please contact the land management agency and report your observations. To report condor observations in and around Pinnacles, please e-mail us or Pinnacles
Thousands of animals die every year when they are struck by automobiles. Often, these road kills are scavenged on by other animals and sometimes the scavenger will also end up dead on the road. Condors rarely approach roads, but vultures and other scavengers often do. Slowing down and keeping an eye out for wildlife crossings are good for both wildlife and drivers. No one wants to end up with a deer on their windshield.
More ways to take action here
Visit Pinnacles Condor Program website for more information.