Tracks, Traps, and Work Ups

It’s been a wild and busy month in Condor Country! We have multiple undertakings going on simultaneously with the birds, all with the intention to maintain the well-being of each bird, and the overall health of the population as a whole. Unfortunately, as our work continues, much of the state of California is being affected by wildfires. The deadliest conflagration in state history, the Camp Fire in Butte County, has devastated parts of Northern California, causing massive plumes of smoke to billow for hundreds of miles. Down here in Southern California, fires have devastated the coastal town of Malibu, and several other communities in the nearby vicinity. Thankfully we have not been affected by these fires at either of our two refuges, though we canceled some of our routine nest observations last week that were in wildfire-prone areas of extremely dry vegetation and high winds. My thoughts and prayers go out to all those affected by the fires.

We are gradually releasing our captive birds from the Bitter Creek Flight Pen and tracking their whereabouts to make sure they are adjusting to their new life in the wild. Most of these birds were born in captivity at either the Los Angeles Zoo or San Diego Zoo so it is important that they are kept in the flight pen for a sufficient amount of time before they are released. This is not so much a quarantine period, but rather an acclimation period. We want the birds to get used to the surroundings of the area and to learn how to behave like wild condors before we release them. The latter is usually accomplished by introducing an older experienced “mentor” bird to the pen whom the juveniles can observe and learn how to interact with.

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Radio tracking newly released birds on the refuge.

Upon release, the birds are intensively tracked over the course of a week or two to ensure that they are behaving normally. We provide supplemental feedings during this time to draw them to an easily observable location where we can watch their behavior and check up on them. Of course when they’re not feeding at one of these sites, they are soaring through the skies or perched on a tree at the bottom of a deep gorge, sending us on a wild goose (or condor) chase with our radio tracking equipment. We often bushwhack across the terrain in order to get eyes on these birds throughout the day. Needless to say this can be tedious and frustrating at times, especially when you get a false lead from the radio signal bouncing around the mountainside that leads you in the opposite direction of the bird!

In addition to tracking our new releases, we are also now trapping all of our wild birds to conduct health checks and replace old tags and transmitters. In order to minimize stress to the condors, we take what’s called a “soft capture” approach in which we bait a double door trapping pen and allow the birds to enter on their own accord before closing the door behind them. They can then enter the door leading to the larger main pen without us having to put hands on them. To bait the trap we stake down a calf carcass to entice the birds to enter. Many of the older birds are wary of the trap at first, having been captured many times before in the same manner. However, the younger naïve birds rush in first to feed and the older dominant birds watch until they can’t stand this display of insubordination any longer, and then they enter as well.

As more and more birds enter the double door trap, a feeding frenzy ensues.

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Condor feeding frenzy in the trap

They violently tear into the carcass, gorging themselves and uttering a peculiar assortment of hisses, grunts, and squeals that I have never heard them make on any other occasion. The carnage is morbidly mesmerizing to watch, as the condors quickly and efficiently strip the meat from the carcass like a pack of velociraptors. Sometimes a bird will rip off a sizeable strip of flesh and attempt to quickly swallow it down outside of the frenzy, only to be swarmed by three or four other greedy birds trying to steal the grisly morsel. A group of 20 birds can easily turn a 50lb calf carcass into a pile of bones in well under an hour.

Once a week we schedule a work up day where we process the birds we’ve trapped and then release them back into the wild. There is always lots of excitement in the air on these days and we usually take these opportunities to invite people from different wildlife agencies and organizations to observe and participate. Of course since this is the only time that we actually handle the condors, we have strict protocols and procedures that we follow in order to minimize the birds’ stress and reduce the risk of injury to birds and people during handling.

We enter the flight pen with long nets. There is often a flurry of feathers and dust as the netters attempt to corner a target bird and get the net around the body. Once a bird is subdued in a net, an experienced handler (not me) summons their inner ninja to stealthily grab and take control of the head gently but firmly before removing the bird from the net. Once outside the flight pen, we can work up the bird.

During a work up we start by taking a small blood sample from the bird’s leg. These samples are sent to a lab for lead testing and other analyses.

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Obtaining a blood sample

We then do an overall health assessment of the bird’s body and count the tail and primary wing feathers to see if any are broken or missing. We check the functionality of the VHF transmitters, and replace them if needed. We also look at the tag and GPS unit and replace those if they are damaged. Finally, we will take a feather sample to be sent to a lab for isotope testing for lead. These feather analyses are actually better indicators for lead than blood tests because they measure the accumulation of the metal in the feather’s keratin over the bird’s lifetime. During this entire workup, which normally lasts between 20 and 30 minutes, two people are securing the bird, which can be quite the experience, especially if the bird tries to struggle.

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Handling #20, the oldest bird in the flock and one of the original 22 wild condors captured in the 1980’s. It was quite the privilege to hold this handsome old bird!

Handling a California condor is wild! They are very powerful birds and we must maintain control of the head, wings, and legs at all times to ensure the safety of man and beast. The thing that I found most surprising was feeling the warmth of their breath on my hand. It’s probably the closest one can come to handling a living, breathing dinosaur! The loose skin around the face can sometimes make it difficult to get a firm grip around the head and I found it quite intimidating the first time as I felt my hand slowly slipping towards the sharp beak which seemed to eagerly await my fingers. I actually did get bitten by the first bird that I handled because of a hand positioning error that I made while handing off the bird to one of the staff biologists. Oh well, I guess I’m now one of the few people who can show off a condor bite scar!

After we finish the work up we release the bird, who usually flies off relieved to get away from our unwelcome handling. Again, I must emphasize that we try to minimize the amount of time we handle the birds. In wildlife science, animal handling is only ever done as a last resort if a certain procedure calls for it and every species has specific protocols in place to minimize stress and reduce the risk of injury. Hopefully in the next decade or two the condor population will be stable enough for biologists to adopt a completely hands off approach to managing the species, for this is the ultimate goal.

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