Becoming a Full-Fledged Condor

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

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Real condor parents spend a lot of time harassing their chicks—pecking at them, dragging them around in the nest, pushing them away when they become too inquisitive—all for their own good. “As the adults were picking and picking at their chick, they were teaching it to be cautious, to defend itself,” Clark says. And, indeed, birds reared by condor parents—even if only for the first three months of their lives—are less likely to approach humans, the biologists say.


Now every condor chick at the Los Angeles Zoo is raised individually, whether by a condor parent or a hand puppet, until it fledges at about 6 months of age. Human puppeteers are now trained to nag and hassle the chicks. And once the chicks are brought to a release pen, they’re mentored by adult condors for six months before being set free. “Now, they’re cautious, timid, wary, and that’s what we want,” says Clark.


Young condors must also learn to be confident. In Baja last year, fledgling condors #218 and #259 were attacked by golden eagles–their frequent foes. After the encounters, the condors hunkered down and took only short flights, apparently too intimidated to soar above the ridgeline, where they might attract the raptors’ attention. Wildlife workers recaptured the condors and later released them in a nearby area, where they gradually regained confidence.


Ever since the first condors were released, crews have tracked them from afar. In 1999, Joe Burnett, then with the Ventana Wilderness Society and now at the Oregon Zoo in Portland, followed two condors’ radio signals to a hidden cove off Highway 1, below Big Sur’s steep cliffs. “As I looked through my binoculars from above, I saw them feeding on a sea lion carcass,” says Burnett. It was the first evidence that the Big Sur birds had found their own wild food and the first time anyone had seen condors anywhere feeding on marine life in more than a century.


New GPS data suggest that knowledge about where to find food—and other information—may be shared between condors. Last year, Sorenson says, signals from condor #199, a younger bird, showed that it visited the Big Sur Cove four or five times a week. It may have learned from other condors that it was a good place to find food. That would square with the new view of condor upbringing, which holds that the birds spend their subadult years as apprentices. Says Wallace: “The knowledge of how to find a carcass and how to stay alive is passed on from generation to generation within the group, because that group knows the ins and outs of a specific habitat.”


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