The Peregrine Fund World Center For Birds of Prey provides refuge for many different birds that are being threatened. The center was founded in 1970 by Tom Cade. Jack Cafferty, the Interpretive Center Director, discusses the endangered California condors in an interview conducted during the summer of 2011 by our intern Holly Vives.
Holly: Approximately how many condors are living in the wild today?
Jack: It’s roughly 380 California condors. At any time during a given year we will have 50-60 condors onsite. That’ll depend upon how many young we hatch, and how many juvenile birds we have awaiting release and so forth.
The California condor was once at a population low of 22 individuals in 1982. This year here at the facility in Boise, Idaho, we’ve already hatched 17 California condor chicks. When you compare that to a population of 22 individuals, that’s quite a feat, quite an accomplishment.
H: What are their food preferences?
J: They are solely scavengers. So in captivity it’s actually really interesting, because we work at great lengths to make sure to vary their diet. Let’s say they’re flying around, today they may come upon a road kill deer carcass, tomorrow in the Grand Canyon they could find a dead elk or maybe they find a dead coyote. You see what I’m saying, it varies a lot. So in captivity we do our best to vary their diet as well, so they’re getting what would be representative of what they’re getting in the wild.
H: How are California condors being threatened?
J: California condors are actually at this point being threatened primarily as a result of lead in the environment. They are gaining this lead from spent ammunition left behind by outdoor sporting enthusiasts. Basically what happens is that they harvest their animals, and the entrails are left behind. Lead fragments end up in those entrails, and that’s what the condors are feeding on.
One of the other things in California that has been a bit of an issue is micro trash. Condors have been eating pennies, and other pieces of micro trash. Not as much of an issue as obviously lead poisoning is, but it has been an issue in years past.
H: When was the starting point of their extinction? I heard during the 1970’s people started seeing a decrease.
J: I think that there were a number of parameters that played a role in the California condor taking this downward slide. DDT was definitely out there at the time, and probably other pesticides. There were some discussions about power line collisions, and all sorts of things, culminating really into a bottleneck of populations.
H: How are Hunters reacting to this situation?
J: Well as you can imagine it’s a very volatile situation. You know people are fairly quick to say you’re trying to take guns away. That’s not what the Peregrine Fund is trying to do, and we have been very careful to not impose restrictions in Northern Arizona to mandate non-lead. We are trying to work with hunters. When given the opportunity to do the right thing, I firmly believe hunters will do so.
But a lot of folks still just don’t know. So we are working carefully in Northern Arizona, our big focus is Northern Arizona, where we actually have our own field crew there. Peregrine Fund’s employees are monitoring that northern Arizona population of California condors. We are working closely to send our employees to sportsman shows, shooting events, working with Arizona game and fish to put information in their materials that they distribute to hunters, and just really try to educate hunters. I think that it’s becoming better received as time goes on, there’s a big shock you know right away. “Oh jeez what’s going on,” and now were starting to see a lot more options for non-lead ammunition out there.
I think that hunters are beginning to embrace it a little more. At least I’d like to think so anyway. As a hunter myself I’d really like to think that. But it’s a difficult subject, there’s no easy way about it. Extinction of a species is not an easy subject to get through either. Unfortunately, we don’t want humans to be the reason why these California condors go extinct.
H: What kind of habitat do they reside in?
J: Big open space, large expanses of land. We’re talking about North America’s largest flying bird. And what they need is food, so that’s important. To give you an idea of perfect California condor habitat think about the Grand Canyon, think about places like Canyonlands National Park, Southern Utah, and large cliff areas typically. We see with these large land masses lots of other wildlife.
And so for instance, in the Grand Canyon you’ll have large carcasses of other ungulates like cattle. You’ll see deer, elk, big horn sheep, and all these things. Obviously, animals die. So you have large carcasses. They want really large carcasses and need large carcasses. Will they eat a dead rabbit? Sure they will. When there’s a flock of condors they’re very social birds, they travel in flocks. They want a large amount of food.
H: What are your suggestions to help deal with the lead poisoning?
J: I think public awareness and public education is really truly going to be the key for the California condor. Hence this fantastic exhibit that we have here, with that interpretative panel you can see right there. It informs the public about saving California condors.
What a great way for us to educate visitors here at the World Center For Birds of Prey about picking up their micro trash. And about how you can shoot non lead ammunition, continuing hunting. I’m an avid hunter myself, I love to do it, and I’ll be going hunting this fall, but using non lead ammunition. So again, coming back I think public education is the key, and we at the Peregrine Fund believe that.
H: How is the public being made aware of the California condor extinction? Through what kind of organizations?
J: So there is a California condor recovery/working group. It’s a conglomerate that’s made up of the Peregrine fund and other entities. Let’s see, there’s the Portland Zoo, there’s the LA Zoo, the San Diego Wild? Animal Park, and the Peregrine Fund. The working group meets fairly regularly and comes together. We coordinate on press releases and press announcements amongst these agencies and private and public entities to notify the general public.
H: How do condors respond to humans being near them?
J: Well, we go to great lengths to minimize human contact with California condors prior to release. You have to realize one thing, California condors' hunting strategy is this really unique sense of curiosity. That sense of curiosity allows them to look down for other activity around the carcass. So let’s say there is a dead deer and there would be a lot of ravens, maybe crows, maybe coyotes, things like that, these condors are flying around and checking things out. It’s really this innate sense of curiosity that drives them down. They think, “oh jeez look there’s a carcass,” and then they scare off everything else. And they clean up the rest of the carcass. Our nature’s garbage disposal, if you will.
And so in the Grand Canyon, if we back up, if you have that innate sense of curiosity, and you see on any given summer day 100,000 visitors at the south rim, it’s going to draw you in, right? And so we see a lot of human interaction with condors. The birds are being released in a fashion in which we are minimizing these human interactions as best possible. But I’m not going to sugar coat anything, there certainly are condor interactions with humans at times, and a lot of it has to do with that sense of curiosity. There is a public education effort to have people not feed condors, don’t throw them things, because that will just cement that relationship to people and we don’t want to do that.
H: Can you tell me a little bit about their appearance?
J: They’re big birds. Largest flying birds in North America, about a nine foot wingspan. They have a dark head until about 5 to 6 years of age. California condors are not the most glamorous species. They will end up with this orangish-red head that you see here, it’s bare or bald. Lots of vulture species have that bald head characteristic, and it’s for cleanliness. They’re sticking their heads down in carcasses. Obviously, if you had lots of feathers up there it would get pretty dirty, so this bald head helps keep them clean. Having shifted gears from working with a species like the peregrine falcon, which is a real charismatic figurestone, to a bald red head that has a face only a mother could love, was extremely difficult.
They have very strong wing bones, very well built for soaring, lots of surface area on the wing. Also, they have a very strong beak (hooked beak), for ripping and tearing flesh. They have strong feet for holding on, but not the type of feet we would see on other birds of prey with extremely sharp talons. Their feet are used for grabbing and holding on.
H: How do you know when they’re ready to be released?
J: Release varies greatly. Typically, let’s say this spring’s hatch bird would be released most likely the beginning of the first of next year, maybe as late as March, and they stagger them. And they kind of evaluate birds, they put them in pre-release pens and get them acclimated at the Vermilion Cliffs. Then it’s a kind of sophisticated release. With condors being such a long living species, the release is quite different from some of our falcons. It takes quite a while.