Condor Chick Signals Hope for the Future

An endangered California condor keeps protective watch over its chick in a nesting cave. Photo: John Brandt/USFWS
An endangered California condor keeps protective watch over its chick in a nesting cave. Photo: John Brandt/USFWS
This summer proved to be momentous for the recovery of the California condor. Joe Burnett and Amy List, biologists at Ventana Wildlife Society, located the nest of two condors, #538 and #574, inside a hollowed-out coast redwood in Big Sur. Over the years Burnett watched these two birds, nicknamed Miracle and Nomad, as they fledged and grew up in the wild. Now, they’re raising their own chick — the first chick, since the 1980s, born to parents who were not raised in captivity.

“It’s a milestone,” Burnett says. “They’re at that tipping point where [the population] is becoming self-sustaining.”

Less than forty years ago, California condors seemed doomed to extinction. As scavengers, they’re vulnerable to lead poisoning from carcasses still containing lead ammunition. With ten-foot wingspans, they’re also prone to flying into power lines. Topping it off, condors tend to raise one chick every two years — a perilous pace for a dwindling species.

The population reached its lowest point in 1982, with only 22 condors remaining. Before they disappeared altogether, conservation groups captured the surviving birds and began a captive breeding program. In 1997, after a series of promising condor releases in Southern California and Arizona, Ventana Wildlife Society began its own effort to reintroduce condors to Big Sur.

When all goes well, condors live up to fifty years in the wild (and into their eighties in captivity). Like other long-lived species, it takes time — between six and eight years — for condors to mature and reach breeding age, making their reintroduction an inherently long process. The first wild-born fledgling (part of the “first-generation”) didn’t hatch until 2008. Although it’s been two decades since condors were first released in Big Sur, this “second-generation” chick is right on schedule.

Condors and Redwoods, a Match Made in Nature

According to Burnett, condors in Big Sur tend to choose hollowed-out coast redwoods for nesting — just as Miracle and Nomad did. Along the coast, desirable nesting sites are in abundance.

Redwood hollows are caused by forest fires — burning branches fall, coring the tree’s center and creating a burned-out interior. Other times, a tree burns from the bottom-up, creating a sort of “chimney.” Eventually leaf litter fills the cavity, leaving a cup-like entrance in the tree’s crown. In most cases, the redwood’s exterior continues to thrive (a testament to redwoods’ extreme fire-resistance).

“These cavities are huge,” Burnett says. Averaging four feet in diameter and four or five feet tall, a hollow is like “a room in the sky.”

The nest that Burnett and List discovered in July sits 70 feet in the air — a secure place to raise precious offspring. And to think: North America’s largest flying bird nests in the world’s tallest trees. It seems like a good match.

Learn more about the wildlife found in the redwood forest, including a newly discovered species of flying squirrel.

About the author

Madeleine Turner grew up near Los Angeles and holds a degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from UC Santa Cruz. When she isn't writing, she's reading or running under the redwoods.

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