The Science of Sustainability

Big Sur, Big Cliffs…Big Birds!

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The Oakland Zoo Staff visit the California Condor


There we were, 12 Oakland Zoo staff, winding our way down the Big Sur coast. We were spending a clear, bright Sunday morning with Sari, a biologist from the Ventana Wildlife Society, in hopes of learning about condors and perhaps catching a glimpse of this highly endangered bird. On route from the Ventana Wildlife Society's rustic outpost office in Andrew Molera Park, Sari told us a bit about condor history, her work and the nature of condor breeding.

The California Condor was at the brink of extinction due to habitat loss, poaching and lead and DDT poisoning. In 1987, the US government approved a captive breeding program and the 22 remaining condors were captured and bred at various California zoos with the help of the Ventana Wildlife Society. Now 147 California Condors live freely and are beginning to reproduce in the wild: a true conservation success story!

Though lead poisoning is still a threat (see Quest Piece), conservationists hope that recent lead bullet legislation will bring that threat to an end. The Ventana Wildlife Society also trains their charges to avoid electrical wires, another challenge to their survival.

Sari's job is to monitor all of the 42 condors that call Big Sur home. She tracks them with antennae that pick up their radio tags every day, and if 5 days go by without seeing one of them, she goes on a mission to find them. Not surprisingly, Sari loves her job.

Us zoo folk were most impressed by their unique breeding story. Condors do not successfully reproduce until age nine and then lay only one egg every two winters. Once hatched, the chick stays in the nest for six months, completely dependent on parental feeding and care. Even after fledging, the young condor sticks with the parent for another year or so. This is a lot for a bird and it is no wonder that bringing the population back from the brink requires some help.

Finally, we stopped just a bit north of Julia Pfieffer Park and piled out:

Big Sur, big cliffs, big sky, big expectations…and then there they were…really BIG BIRDS! Three condors sat on pines not too far from us, bending the tips of the tree with their weight. Through Sari's scope or binoculars, we could see their radio tag numbers, their bald pink heads, their feathery, boa-like neck feathers and their giant bodies.

As we observed their behaviors of submissive biting and displacing each other on their chosen perches, random people stopped their cars to see what we were up to and Sari took time to talk to each newly inspired condor enthusiast.

Then, against all seeming odds, they lifted their bodies, displayed their nine and half feet wingspan, and soared right by us…once, twice, three times. They seemed to be riding the wind, representing everything good that we humans can do for nature, once we try.

You, too, can take a tour with Ventana, every second Sunday of the month.

Visit "Bringing the Condors Home," a fantastic condor exhibit that will be at The Oakland Zoo this September.


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Category: Biodiversity, Biology, Environment, Partners

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Amy Gotliffe

About the Author ()

Amy Gotliffe is Conservation Manager at the Oakland Zoo. She is a Detroit transplant, enjoying the good Bay Area life for 17 years. She has a degree in communications, holds several teaching credentials and has a Masters Degree in Environmental Education. She has worked at various Bay Area educational and environmental institutions, teaching second grade, working on campaigns, planting pollinator gardens, producing earth day events and generally spreading the word about wildlife and green living. She currently works at The Oakland Zoo where she serves as the Conservation Manager. There, she coordinates support for international, national and local conservation efforts, produces a Conservation Speaker Series, produces the zoo's Earth Day event, leads eco-trips, teaches the various educational programs and heads up an on-site Green Team. On her list of other passions are travel, photography, music and the lindy hop. :-)
  • http://birdsnorthamerica.com/ types of birds

    After doing a little research I found out they were actually cowbird babies. Cowbirds are brood parasites that lay their eggs in other birds nests hoping that that bird will raise them as their own. The cowbird mothers remove at least one egg of host’s by piercing the egg with it’s beak and either knocking it out of the nest or flying off with the egg. We didn’t see any egg shells below the nest so the mother must have flown off with it. I’ve also found that cowbirds typically only lay one egg in a nest so because we have two baby cowbirds they were probably from two different mothers. The cowbird babies hatch earlier and grow faster and larger than the host’s babies so they have a better chance of surviving. Cowbird hatchlings also tend to get fed more because they have a bright pink mouth which indicates they need to be feed more. In the picture above you can clearly see this. I remember watching the “mother” phoebe flying around frantically trying to feed them from our study window too.

  • http://www.facebook.com/pages/Condor-Blanco-Mines/109048802500754?sk=wall victoria stiles

    The California Condor are now back from near extinction, and if you look at this magnificent creature, it looks very prehistoric out of the days of the dinosaurs. However they don't do so well around mankind, or human civilizations you see. Even though the Condor has come back from the endangered species list, its existence in the wild is predicated on its ability to get food, and if we continue to interfere with this it may someday end back on that list again.

  • maria jose

    We all know that condors are assumed to be the best bird in California but still there are various state where it is considered to be an endangered species.