It smells, it smells very bad, it smells like death. That’s an everyday scent for the volunteers of the Ventana Wildlife Society, one of the organizations in charge of the recovery of the critically endangered California Condor. When you are constantly dealing with a large carrion eater, a scavenger, you are always surrounded by that distinct stench of death.
Today, Lyla Hunt is cleaning out the holding pen that the society uses as an acclimatization area before releasing animals into the wild. The major chore: throw out all rat and cow carcasses to “clean” the cage. Somehow she does it with a huge smile on her face. When it comes down to it, if you love vultures (the California Condor is just a very very large vulture), then, you really love everything that comes with them, including carcasses.
Luckily too, cleaning out cages isn’t the only thing the society’s biologists and volunteer do. They also monitor the safety and health of each condor through radio telemetry; they treat lead-poisoned birds; and collect thin-shelled, wild-laid eggs and replace them with viable captive-bred eggs. It is a lot of very intensive work but when there are less than 250 individuals left in the wild, you do everything you can to save each and every single one.
In 1987, only twenty two condors existed in the world. That’s right, only twenty two birds. That’s when the government stepped in, captured all remaining birds and started a captive breeding program. Today, around 180 are in captivity and 225 birds live in the wild, all derived from the original 22, all released from the captive breeding program.
These numbers make it apparent why such care is taken with each egg, with each bird. Why were there only twenty two birds left in 1987? As with many other bird species, the pesticide DDT caused their egg shells to be too thin, causing them to break. Thankfully DDT was outlawed and is no longer in use.
Why then, does the society still monitor each bird? Condors, aren’t quite out of the wood work yet. They now face different, modern problems. Their habitat is being destroyed, they die of lead poisoning due to eating hunter killed carrion that contains lead bullets, and poaching is still an issue. In fact, in 2009, two condors were shot within a three week time span (thankfully both condors survived).
The lead poisoning is starting to slow down as well. In 2008 the Ridley-Tree Condor Preservation Act went into effect which requires all hunters hunting within the condor’s range to use non-lead bullets. Currently there is even a political debate whether or not to ban lead bullets statewide. Since these birds can roam large distances and aren’t confined to very specific areas it would certainly help them.
After the holding cage is cleaned Lyla and two other volunteers hit the road along the Big Sur coast in central California. Every few miles they stop at a pullout and see what condors are in range of their telemetry equipment. Condor 204’s signal is strong, very strong. Soon we see him soaring along the steep cliffs, riding the thermals with no apparent effort. He comes closer and with binoculars his wing tag is visible. A yellow tag with a number four. Lyla tells me that this is Amigo, he is a nine year old male that was raised at San Diego Zoo before being released here in Big Sur. She even tells me I could have easily learned that myself since each condor has a unique color and number combination. If you spot a condor, you yourself can find out its history by visiting Ventana’s condor spotter site (http://www.condorspotter.com/).
Seeing Amigo is breath-taking. His nine foot wing span is simply awe inspiring. Turkey vultures flying close to him pale in comparison. I start to understand how easily you can fall in love with these birds. Luckily people like Lyla have learned that lesson long ago and they continue their work to ensure the condors survival, even if that means picking up a dead animal here or there.