If you have been following the epic tale of the California condor, you’re probably aware of the pivotal role that wildlife biologists and zoos have played in it. Saving this species has required the combined efforts of many people and institutions over almost five decades. But the payoff has been tremendous—from a low of only 22 birds in 1982, the population has grown to 510 birds today, with 300 living in the wild. Over the years, the focus of the California Condor Recovery Program has shifted to meet the needs of the birds. The continued success of wild birds as well as those in human care has spurred more changes.
“Approximately three years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), which oversees the program, realized that they just didn’t have the staff to manage condors as intensely as they had in the past,” comments L.A. Zoo Curator of Birds Mike Maxcy. “The population in the wild was approaching 300 birds! Part of this intense management was regular nest entries and twice yearly blood lead level tests. It was decided to limit these procedures. Eventually, a self-sustaining population will be stable enough to withstand natural losses. But we’re not quite there yet, so to help offset the possible loss of condors due to reduced oversight, the USFWS asked all of its condor program partners to encourage more breeding so that we can increase the number of birds for release into the wild.”
The L.A. Zoo has risen to the occasion. In addition to the 18 California condor eggs laid this season (surpassing the 1996 record of 17 eggs in a single season), two of the three new breeding pairs produced eggs, with the third showing potential for next year. Each of the established pairs laid at least one egg, so it has been a good season in terms of egg production, and staff are confident that this will continue from the 11 breeding pairs in the years ahead.
“Producing 18 eggs this year didn’t happen by luck,” Maxcy says. “The L.A. Zoo invested approximately $200,000 in renovating both of its condor facilities. These upgrades include the addition of a state-of-the art camera system, a new incubation and chick rearing facility, and remodeled nest boxes at the East facility, among other improvements. It took three years to complete this overhaul, which finished right before this year’s breeding season.”
Staff expect all of this year’s chicks to be parent-reared (as opposed to being hand-raised by staff). The first was placed with foster parents on March 25 and three more since then. All are doing great. There likely won’t be as many double broods this year—the chick-rearing technique pioneered by L.A. Zoo staff—but it remains an option if needed. The last of the current season’s eggs is due to hatch in July.
“Answering the call to produce more offspring was the right thing to do and it will lift the California Condor Recovery Program to new heights,” concludes Maxcy. “We expect to release more condors into the wild this year and every year after for quite a while!”