They won’t win a beauty contest, but California condors are very impressive birds.
With wings sometimes spanning nearly 10 feet, they’re the largest flying birds in North America. They can soar as high as 15,000 feet and as fast as 55 mph and they sometimes travel 150 miles a day in search of a meal.
But, with a rapidly declining population, condors were also headed for extinction in the 1980s. In a bid to save them and with the country’s condor population down to a mere 22, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with its partners, launched the California Condor Recovery Program in 1982, taking the last one into captivity on Easter Sunday in 1987.
“California condors are both biologically and socially important,” said Kara Donohue, a senior biologist at Southern California Edison (SCE). “Biologically speaking, every organism plays a role in its ecosystem and by allowing a species to go extinct, we don't know what type of chain reaction could occur. Condors came close to extinction because of human activities, so we have a responsibility to try to help them recover."
Fast forward to this summer and, thanks to the recovery program, Donohue and condor aficionados can worry much less about extinction. Now, instead of the 22 in 1987, there are 437 condors in the U.S.
Those include 232 condors in the wild — 131 in California, 72 in Arizona/Utah and 29 in Baja California, Mexico — and 205 still in captivity in the program. Of those, there are 68 condors and three chicks flying free in Southern California.
One of the leading successes in achieving these numbers is power pole aversion training, especially since perching on power poles — along with lead poisoning and microtrash — are the leading threats to condors.
The wildlife service, in a joint effort with SCE’s avian protection program and Transmission & Distribution unit, recently moved to take aversion training to the next level by installing more realistic-sized, 30-foot aversion poles near flight pens at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge and Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge. In the two previous instances where poles were used in the wild, they were much smaller.
The aversion training, which the wildlife service started in 1994 over concerns about electrocutions, fatal collisions and power pole perchings after beginning the reintroduction of captive-bred condors in 1992, involves placing a replica of a power pole in the birds’ flight pens.
Key to it all is that the pole is designed to deliver a mild but uncomfortable electric shock to condors that land on its crossarm, thus making them associate power poles with danger and avoiding them. To reinforce this, natural tree snags are placed nearby to reward condors landing on them with a positive perch, and best of all, no shock.
The results have been amazing.
No captive-bred condor has been electrocuted while perched on a power pole since the training’s inception and only one condor in Southern California has died in a mid-air collision (in 2001) with a power line, according to the wildlife service, which tracks the birds by transmitters and ID numbers attached to their wings.
“I think it’s a great aversion training technique,” said Josh Felch, a biological science technician with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “A mild shock is much better than possible injury and likely death associated with condors perching on active power poles.”
However, chicks fledged in the wild do not get this training. This is where the 30-foot SCE poles installed just outside the release site flight pens come in.
“It is [chicks fledged in the wild] that we are targeting, as well as follow-up training for the other condors in the free-flying populations, with the establishment of these new mock power poles,” said Felch.
On consecutive days recently, Felch, SCE biologists Rachael Poston and Jeff Trow and utility field supervisor Mark Hubbard, oversaw a three-man line crew of Daniel Ocegueda, Joel Garibay and Julian Macias setting the poles at Bitter Creek and Hopper Mountain. The hot-wired poles are powered by a 12-volt electric fence charger popular in the agricultural industry.
Felch also said that condor releases have been moved to areas with fewer power lines and that utilities have also helped by sometimes relocating power lines underground and encasing overhead lines in insulated tree wire, which improves visibility to condors.
The condors’ journey from breeding location to reintroduction begins at one of four captive breeding facilities: The Los Angeles Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, the Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey in Idaho and the Oregon Zoo, where the birds are first introduced to pole aversion training.
From captive-breeding facilities, condors are taken to release location flight pens — Bitter Creek and Hopper Mountain are two of five and also include replica poles — where they can acclimate to their new surroundings and interact with condors perching or feeding nearby.
When condors are released, typically in the fall and at about 18 months old, they are freed in pairs to encourage socialization. And supplemental carrion — the staple of their diet — is placed near the release pen to lure other free-flying condors in to feed and interact with the new releases.
Of course, the new 30-foot aversion pole is nearby, too, to assist the recovery plan’s goal of establishing two geographically distinct, self-sustaining populations, each with 150 birds in the wild and at least 15 breeding pairs, with a third population of condors retained in captivity.
While Felch is very pleased with the progress, he cautions that these numbers merely give California condors, which can live for 40 years or more, a chance to be downlisted from endangered to threatened under the Endangered Species Act. However, delisting the condor from the endangered and threatened lists is the ultimate goal and there is still work to be done there.
But Donohue loves that SCE is part of that work.
“These are the types of projects where Edison gets to take a break from its regular work and provide assistance to one of our partners that benefits both of us,” said Donohue. “It's always great to get a chance to be involved in the preservation of an endangered species like the California condor.”