It’s been a good year for Arizona’s condors on the comeback trail.
The 73 condors riding updrafts above the Grand Canyon and the Vermillion Cliffs produced three chicks this year — a record for the expensive and complex effort.
Two of the chicks successfully fledged and have now joined the mostly captive-bred adults, the largest flying birds in the world nearly exterminated by eggshell-thinning pesticides and other problems.
Unhappy biologists found the third condor fledgling dead with a broken wing at the base of his nest in a cave in the face of a cliff in the Grand Canyon. Biologists think the chick fell from its nest before it could fly.
Biologists also found small bits of trash in the chick’s stomach — probably from food brought back to the nest by the parents. Such trash can pose a threat to the scavengers, but not so grave a threat as the lead bullets they eat when they find a hunter’s abandoned carcass. Lead poisoning has killed 19 condors.
“We have found foreign items in and around other condor nest caves in the Grand Canyon and the chicks fledged without issue,” said Chris Parish, director of the recovery program in Arizona. “This event does demonstrate the volume of trash that exists in the environment and that we can all help by packing out what we pack in.”
Still, the two surviving fledglings have boosted the Arizona program close to the half-way point in its goal of having 150 condors and 15 breeding pairs.
Moreover, last month biologists released three more adult condors raised in captivity to further bolster the Grand Canyon flock, the 17th such release since 1996. Those condors were raised in the Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho, one of four captive breeding programs. The birds are raised with a minimum of human contact and trained to both fear human beings and to avoid perching on power lines.
Biologists are also working to establish condors in California, Utah and Mexico, but so far the Arizona flock has done the best.
Only 22 condors were left in the wild when biologists decided to capture them and start a captive breeding program in the 1980s. Currently there are 399 living condors, with 198 of them in the wild.
Most of the condors in Arizona were raised in captive breeding programs then released as adults as part of a sometimes costly effort to return the Ice Age survivors to their ancient home in the skies above the Grand Canyon. When condors returned to the Grand Canyon, one of the first caves they occupied still had 10,000-year-old condor bones inside.
The last wild condor in Arizona before the reintroduction was sighted just south of the Grand Canyon in 1924. The birds have 9.5-foot-wing spans and can weigh 26 pounds and listed as endangered in 1967.
“Another first — three chicks in a single season,” said Eddie Feltes, field manager for the Peregrine Fund, the conservation that oversees the recovery effort in Arizona and Utah. “We remain hopeful that the two remaining chicks will join the ever-growing flock.”
The two surviving chicks took to the skies in late October. Three adults continued to tend to them, bringing the youngsters food scavenged mostly from dead deer and elk, but also from carcasses set out as supplemental food at the Vermillion Cliffs’ release site.
The banner year for chicks comes as the program heads into a required review and comment period.
“Local community support is a large part of the success of the Southwest condor recovery project,” said Steve Spangle, Fish and Wildlife Service’s Arizona field supervisor. “In addition to biological information, it’s important for us to hear how condors may have enriched individuals’ outdoor experiences and local economies, whether the program has interfered with land-use practices, and whether individuals and local governments have incurred expenses resulting from the program.”
Comments from the public, local governments and agencies are requested. In order to be fully considered, comments should be submitted by Dec. 16, 2012. Comments may be e-mailed SWcondorComments@fws.gov, mailed to Field Supervisor, Arizona Ecological Services Office, 2321 West Royal Palm Road, Suite 103, Phoenix, AZ 85021-4951 or faxed to (602) 242-2513.
The 15-year effort to return condors to the wild also involves the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Arizona Game and Fish Department, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Coalition of Resources and Economies, The Phoenix Zoo, U.S. Forest Service, and other partners.
Since the launch of the recovery program, biologists have released a total of 132 condors into the world, after years of work to perfect the captive breeding program.
Now, keepers feed chicks with hand puppets, swap eggs between breeding facilities to increase genetic diversity and put the condors through various training routines to increase their chance of survival in the wild.
Of the 132 condors released so far, 67 have died — victims of lead poisoning, shootings, power lines and even attacks by golden eagles and coyotes, when a fledgling ends up stuck on the ground.
The 73 free-flying condors in northern Arizona and southern Utah include a total of seven born in the wild.
Individual condors will fly long distances, but most have remained either near the Grand Canyon or Zion National Park.