California condors, the largest land birds in North America, may soon be soaring over the Grand Canyon. As the second major step in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's recovery plan for the endangered condor, biologists propose to release nine captive-bred birds in the Vermilion Cliffs area just north of the canyon in April.
Since 1992, 27 captive-bred birds have been released in California, and 13 are still living in the wild."It's extremely exciting," Robert Mesta, the recovery plan coordinator, said of the proposed release. "The key to recovery is to get a lot of birds out in a lot of different areas. This is the next chapter."
California condors, which dwell on cliffs, have been on the endangered list since 1967. Biologists discovered in the early 1980s that the wild population had fallen perilously close to extinction and decided to capture all the birds and start a captive breeding program. The last wild-born condor was captured in 1987.
Although some feared that taking all birds out of the wild could mean the end of the species if the captive breeding plans failed, the birds adapted well. By 1991, they had produced enough chicks that "surplus" birds - those not needed to maintain the gene pool - were available for release.
The first releases were not without problems, Mesta said. One bird died after drinking antifreeze, and others died in collisions with power lines.
Others had to be recaptured after they became fond of human handouts. Those early experiences convinced the biologists that the birds needed more help in the wild, so they began teaching them survival skills.
"The young birds discovered that power poles make great perches," explained Mesta. "But they were not very agile and they were hitting the power lines."
So the biologists taught the birds to steer clear of the poles by delivering a mild electric shock to birds who landed on fake power poles in their flight pens. "It didn't take them very long to avoid the poles," said Mesta. The birds now in the wild, all of which had the training, still avoid power poles.
To teach the birds to stay away from people, the biologists taught them to associate humans with chaos. A human would appear in the birds' line of vision while others rushed in, making noise and placing the birds in dark kennels.
The birds soon learned to fly away at the first sight of humans. The birds chosen for release in Arizona have all received both types of training.
The Peregrine Fund, a nonprofit organization based in Boise, will carry out the release in Arizona. It will monitor the birds around the clock and put out dead animals for food. More birds will probably be released each year.
The goal is to establish a self-sustaining population of 150 birds in Arizona, Mesta said. "They don't breed until they are 5 years old, and they lay only one egg every other year, so we won't know for 10 years how successful we've been."
The wildlife service will be soliciting public comments on the release before making a final decision. Mesta said he expected little opposition. "These birds are designated `nonessential,' which removes any restrictions that would result from having an endangered species in the area," he said. "Once we explain that to people, it quells their fears."