Becoming a Full-Fledged Condor

The California condor learns from people, other condors and the school of hard knocks

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“We now know that we’re looking at one of the more complicated species in the animal world,” says the San Diego Zoo’s Mike Wallace, who heads the Condor Recovery Team, a panel that oversees restoration efforts. It’s also “one of the most difficult to study because of the dynamics of the way they do their business.”


Scavengers, it turns out, have to be especially resourceful. Unlike a peregrine falcon or an eagle that can snatch prey out of the air or water, a condor has to wait for something to die. “It’s a knowledge game, an information game for them,” says Wallace. “It’s a case of an ephemeral resource out there, and if they don’t find it on a schedule that can keep them alive, then they’re not going to make it as a condor.” A condor will often have to fight for a carcass. “There may be a cougar or coyote waiting in the brush, and usually there are turkey vultures, eagles or ravens already feeding there, so condors will come in—changing the color of their faces to blood-red and blowing their necks up, and just as they are about to land, they flash their wings showing the white underneath—whoa!” says Mike Clark of the Condor Recovery Team, feigning the shock of another bird. “They get in there by intimidating, power-tripping and bluffing.”


The first condors to be released, in 1992, taught scientists a lot about the bird’s intelligence and behavior. By 1994, five of the 13 animals had died, 4 by electrocuting themselves. They had collided with high-voltage power lines or had perched on power poles and unfurled their wings into the lines while sunning themselves. The surviving 8 birds were brought in to the Los Angeles Zoo breeding centers to teach them about electricity. Wallace and Clark erected a mock power pole that gave a slight shock to any bird alighting on it. To the researchers’ surprise, some birds learned not to perch on the power pole simply by observing another bird getting shocked, or by observing that an adult never went near the pole.


Another behavior problem of newly released birds was their curiosity about people. “One of our first birds walked into the office building at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur,” recalls Kelly Sorenson, executive director of the Ventana Wilderness Society. Another, he said, went to the Esalen Institute, the Big Sur home of 1960s encounter groups, and “perched in a cypress tree above the hot tubs filled with naked people.” Still another condor begged handouts from campers. They were acting more like pets than wild animals.


As it happens, those particular birds had been reared by hand puppets made to look like adult condors. The human puppeteers at the breeding centers had always hidden themselves carefully from the birds, so the chicks wouldn’t associate their two-legged benefactors with food. Eventually researchers figured out what breeders were doing wrong. At three months of age, the chicks had been placed in groups of four to nine, on the theory that they would bond and stick together after release. But with no adults present, they didn’t learn how to behave like condors. “It was the blind leading the blind,” Wallace says.


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