The stench of rotting calf carcasses hangs thick in the air, and bugs are buzzing about, attracted by the carrion laid out to lure seven California condors in from the wild. From the Big Sur coast, it has taken several fieldworkers from the Ventana Wilderness Society two and a half hours by four-wheel drive and on foot to reach the condor release pen nestled in the Santa Lucia Mountains. They have trekked here to examine the condors and outfit several of them with GPS transceivers.
This is one of the few times these prehistoric-looking vultures, the largest soaring birds in North America, will interact face to face with their human benefactors, and the humans are intent on making it as unpleasant as possible; they want to discourage the birds from fraternizing with any people they may encounter during any future travels. Six biologists enter the pen shouting and flailing their arms, shooing the condors into holding cells. Three people back one condor into a corner. Curt Mykut, Ventana’s condor program coordinator, deftly grabs the bird’s beak while the other two crew members take hold of its body, compressing its wings and coupling its feet. Any slip could lead to bloodshed. A condor’s beak is sharper than the sharpest carving knife; the bird’s talons could easily gash through the toughest denim; and with a nine-foot wingspan, one abrupt flap of its wings could knock a biologist silly.
When the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) captured the last condor in the wild in 1987 and put it into a breeding program, bringing to 27 the number in captivity, no one knew if the species could recover. To everyone’s relief, the survivors mated. As of this summer, 149 condors were living in captivity, and 99 released birds were flying free in central California, Arizona and Baja, Mexico—the largest wild population in more than half a century. Twelve more birds will be released this month. And five pairs are known to be mating in the wild.
At first, every released bird was equipped with two battery-powered radio transmitters, but condors often disappear for days or weeks into rugged landscapes where humans don’t go and radio signals drop out. Last year, Margaret and William Randolph Hearst III, whose family built San Simeon, in condor country, donated $100,000 to equip 12 birds with solar-powered GPS units. Each one, about the size of a pager, is affixed to a pin that pierces a wing and attaches to it much as a pierced earring attaches to an ear. The unit determines location from satellite signals, updates geographic coordinates within 14 feet every hour for up to 16 hours a day and sends the information to a satellite station, which relays it to the wilderness group’s Salinas headquarters by e-mail every three days.
The state-of-the-art technology has enabled biologists to venture deeper into the condors’ world than ever before. Early returns have already shown that condors fly a lot more in a given day than anyone expected and that fledglings and young condors explore and expand their range as they grow and gain confidence. But the main thing biologists have learned—from observations and experiments, and from GPS as well as other tracking systems—is just how much the condors have to learn to survive in the wild.
Naturalists have long known that condors are inquisitive, playful, highly social and more or less monogamous. Researchers working on the condor recovery program have found that the birds are also more astute and idiosyncratic than previously believed. “They seem like the primates I used to work with, because they are so intelligent and so social, each with a distinct personality that evolves in a highly developed hierarchy,” says Chandra David, lead condor keeper at the Los Angeles Zoo.