Tracking technologies have also shed light on condors’ social nature. About two years after being released in 1997, members of the Big Sur flock discovered condor comrades that had been released 160 miles south in VenturaCounty. Ever since, the Big Sur birds have intermittently flown along the coastal mountain range to Southern California, a trip they often make in as little as five hours. Apparently they go to all that trouble just to hang out with their southern pals.
After the ventana crew finishes installing the new GPS devices, the birds depart one by one. Taking a running jump from the edge of the pen, #242, a 3-year-old male, thrusts his legs back, pointing his talons in gymnast form as his wings catch an updraft and lift him above the Big Sur treetops.
Within a few weeks, the birds are asserting their independence. Male #242 embarked on his maiden voyage toward the condor reserve in Southern California. He surprised the field crew at Ventana by taking a coastal route; other birds had followed the inland side of the mountains. Around the same time, GPS-tagged condor #161 raised a few eyebrows by leaving her mate in charge of their nestling and flying 100 miles to forage for food.
“We have saved the species in the sense of captive numbers, but the ideal is to have the condor in the wild doing its own thing,” Wallace says. The more the researchers learn about the birds, the better the chances that someday truly wild condors—without numbered tags or GPS units—will once again soar the skies of the West.