Two California Condor chicks fledged from their nests in the Grand Canyon in December, bringing the world's population of endangered California Condors now flying free in the wild to 169. This is the first year that there are more condors flying free than are in captivity for breeding purposes.
"This shows that we are making real progress in bringing this ecologically significant bird back from the brink of extinction," said Bill Heinrich, who oversees the condor recovery program for The Peregrine Fund, a Boise-based conservation organization for birds of prey. "I am thrilled that these two chicks appear to be doing well and I hope they will survive to become productive members of the flock."
Currently, the total number of California Condors is 327, with 158 in captivity. Of the 169 condors in the wild, 67 are in Arizona and 83 are in California. There also are 19 California Condors flying free in Mexico. The goal is to produce at least 150 members in each of the U.S. populations, including at least 15 breeding pairs.
The Peregrine Fund breeds and produces condors at its World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise and releases them to the wild in northern Arizona. Eight wild condor chicks also hatched this year in California, where a geographically separate population is being produced by zoos, along with The Peregrine Fund.
California Condors are some of the world's rarest birds. Their numbers had dropped to just 22 individuals when the recovery program began in the 1980s. Because condors eat carrion, they help fulfill the role that scavengers play in the environment by consuming dead animal carcasses that might otherwise spread disease and foul land and water resources.
The Grand Canyon chicks, which hatched in May, were produced by two sets of condor parents nesting in the canyon's remote ledges and caves. The chicks were first observed testing their wings with short flights in September and October. One of the chicks was produced by the same adult pair that in 2003 hatched the first wild condor chick in the Grand Canyon in more than 100 years. The other chick belongs to first-time parents. The adult female is the last bird remaining from the group that was released when the Arizona recovery program began in 1996.
This month's fledglings make a total of nine wild chicks hatched in the Grand Canyon since 1996. Eight are still alive.
The largest survival challenge facing the two new chicks and all condors is lead poisoning from lost or unretrieved remains of animals shot with lead ammunition, Heinrich said. The Peregrine Fund works with the Arizona Game and Fish Department and local hunting groups on an awareness campaign that has produced a dramatic increase in the number of hunters who voluntarily switch to copper bullets or other non-lead alternatives in condor country, with a corresponding drop in condor deaths due to lead poisoning.
"We are grateful to all the hunters who are valued partners in restoring California Condors to their historic range," Heinrich said.
Nevertheless, every condor must be captured twice each year and tested for lead poisoning. Because they are social eaters, it is possible for just one carcass to poison several birds. Condors are treated with chelation, a process that removes lead from a bird's body, and re-released to the wild. None treated this year have yet died from lead poisoning.
"Until we significantly reduce the amount of lead they are exposed to, we will never have a self-sustaining population of condors," Heinrich said. "We look forward to the day when they no longer need us to survive."
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