When Joel Brust of Indian Point Ostrich Ranch in Cummings Valley was told by his ranch hand on a recent Sunday morning that there was a California Condor near some ostrich chick pens, he wasn't surprised, because condors were a familiar sight to Joel and his wife, Marcy.
"We have observed several condors in recent days, and every evening there were usually two or three that would be arriving to spend the night in a tall tree near the ostrich chick pens." However, this bird was on the ground and something seemed to be wrong with it. It had a radio transmitter attached under its wing and a green tag on top of the wing with the number 17.
After carefully placing the giant bird into a large animal carrier, Joel and Marcy spent a couple of hours trying to contact someone to report their unwell guest, knowing that California Condors are one of the rarest birds in North America, with a total world population of fewer than 500 individuals.
"Being it was Sunday, we often got voice mails and were calling numbers both inside and outside of California as well as sending emails with no luck," Joel explains. "Eventually we got a return call, and then were contacted by Josh Felch, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Condor Recovery Program. He told me that he was currently in Frazier Park on his way to give a presentation at the Tejon Ranch, but he was canceling it and coming to our ranch immediately."
Felch took the sick or injured bird to the Los Angeles Zoo, where despite the best efforts of veterinarians, the bird succumbed. A necropsy has been performed, but at press time, a cause of death had yet to be determined. Condors, especially young ones, can face a number of risks, but currently the leading cause of condor mortality is lead poisoning.
As carrion eaters, condors feed on the remains of dead animals or the gut piles left behind by hunters. In doing so, they can ingest fragments of lead bullets, with harmful or fatal consequences. Condors have extremely strong digestive fluids which exacerbate the problem by making the lead easier to absorb. Lead poisoning seems to be the largest obstacle in successful condor recovery, and many, many birds have been had to be treated for lead poisoning, not always in time to save them.
Because of concerns about wildlife ingesting lead — other birds, including golden eagles and several duck species have been harmed by swallowing lead while foraging — lead projectiles are being phased out in California, and effective July 1, 2019, nonlead ammunition will be required when taking any wildlife with a firearm anywhere in California.
California Condors are frequently seen in the Tehachapi Mountains, and there is a website where you can look up information on specific individuals, if you're able to get wing tag numbers. According to the website, condorspotter.com, the bird found by the Brusts was #717, a female in the Southern California flock that hatched on May 30, 2013.
Highlighting the lengthy adolescence of condors, 717 was four years old but still had a gray head, having yet to acquire the pinkish necks and yellowish heads of fully adult birds. Condors don't reach sexual maturity until they are six years old, and even when they pair off and nest successfully, they only raise one chick every other year.
If you see condors and have any concerns or questions, you can contact the USFWS Condor Recovery Program office in Ventura at 805-644-5185. You can also call wildlife biologist Josh Felch on his cell phone at 805-290-7074. The Tehachapi Mountains are a condor stronghold, and local residents can and do assist in monitoring condors and their well-being.
Condors mature slowly and can live for more than 60 years. In the late 1980s, their numbers were reduced to just 22 birds, all of them in captivity, and many speculated that their extinction was inevitable. After 30 years of hard conservation work, however, this magnificent and unforgettable creature, with the largest wingspan of any bird in North America, is flying free in several Western states and its future is far brighter.
Have a good week.
Jon Hammond has written for Tehachapi News for more than 30 years. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.