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California Condor Population Update Summer 2008
The California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) is the largest land bird in North America. The wingspan of a California condor is about 9 ½ feet. Adult California condors may weigh as much as 22 pounds. Condors are a critically endangered species. Males and females look alike, both have bald reddish-orange heads and white wing patches on the underside. They may live up to fifty years when conditions are appropriate. As an ancient relative of vultures, the California condor feeds on dead animals.
National Park Service and U. S. Fish and Wildlife researchers are part of the teams who observe and manage these endangered birds. Close observation and counts of nests and mating pairs help them keep track of whether the California condors that were released into the wild after their captivity are surviving and thriving. As of July, 2008 the official count is 332 condors, with the largest wild populations located in California, Utah and Arizona, 152 of these birds are living in the wild.Scientists have observed California condors flying approximately 50 miles an hour while soaring on thermal currents. Sometimes condors may fly 100 miles in a single day in search of food.
Condors were identified in 1797 by a British naturalist, George Shaw from specimens collected by earlier explorers who sent them to European museums. Fossil records show that the California condor population was widespread across America during the Pleistocene epoch.
A recent report from the US Fish and Wildlife Service indicates there are 8 known condor chicks in California and one confirmed chick in the Baja region. The summary of breeding activity in Arizona shows only two nesting pairs remain where there were five nesting pairs. Precise details of failed nesting activity are not always known. Yet at other times they are very clearly documented. This depends on the location of the nests and conditions at the time of breeding. Since condors do not actually make nests, their breeding areas may be simply flat rocks or caves like the one that can be observed from the Tonto plateau. No eggs or chicks have been observed at that nest but the parent condors have been making frequent trips in and out of the cave bringing in carrion. They are behaving like parent condors, both of which tend the chicks for about 5 months.
Rangers in Utah have numerous reports of condor sightings in the Kolob range. Rangers observed about 27 different carcasses that condors fed upon in this region besides the feeding areas that they manage nearby. These animals were most often free range domestic sheep. Remember, condors are scavengers and eat carrion (dead animals). They are not predators, nor are they a threat to sheep or to people.
The summer of 2008 has been a difficult year for condors and other wildlife in California because of the major wildfires. The condors in the Big Sur area were evacuated from their flight cages, which burned in the fires along with a lot of equipment. Two adult California condorsthat perched in nearby trees and did not survive. The condors which fled to the coast were surviving after the fire and all three chicks from that region survived the fire.
The expense of reestablishing the research area and field sites is substantial. Nonetheless the survival rate of these condors has been encouraging news. One significant question that has lingered since the last free condors were captured in 1987 has been whether the condors raised in captivity could survive and breed once they were re-introduced to the wild.
Circumstances this year strongly suggest the condors can be survivors in the face of natural adversity. Lingering concerns about lead poisoning and California condor habitat loss continue to threaten these descendents of ancient birds, whether they live in Arizona, Utah or California.
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