Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The much anticipated Condor post

Folks, the gentleman pictured is Ranger Dave who volunteers at Grand Canyon National Park and who gives nature talks. Yesterday was his first one on condors who have been re-introduced to the Grand Canyon on an incremental basis since 1996. There are currently 77 condors in and around the Grand Canyon area.

Some fun facts about the Condors:

- They mate for life.

- There is no distinguishing features that differentiate between male and female which may help explain their very low reproductive rates - more on this later. In fact, the only way humans can tell is by blood tests.

- They have a 50-60 year life span and can begin mating at age 6 or 7.

- Being scavengers (they don't kill their prey) they have tremendous immune systems as what they're dining on may not exactly be farm fresh. The fact that its head and neck is hairless aids in cutting back on bacteria buildup as the condor will literally be in neck deep come chow time.

Ranger Dave was not reading from a script and when they asked him to give a talk on condors, the Park Service gave him a stack of books and points of contact for condor subject matter experts.

Condors at one time were much more numerous than they are now and they ranged from the Canadian border down to Baja, concentrated in the western half of the United States.

We'll spare you all the gory details but their population decline was so precipitous that by the early 80s they numbered 22, 15 being in captivity and 7 in the wild

Their comeback was a painful ordeal as the 80s proved to be a decade that marked bitter divisions with respect to how best to restore the condor population. On one side, you had folks who were opposed to breeding condors in captivity as they felt that a young chick would not learn the life skills from its captive parents. And preserving the few that remained in zoos was akin to museum pieces or as Ranger Dave described, "pigs with feathers".

The other side said, "Hello. There are only 7 free condors left in the entire world. We have to do something to preserve this species".

So, the captive breeding continued: Breed, breed, breed - fail, fail, fail. Condors only lay one egg every two years and this was obviously a constricting factor in the condor comeback but then a funny thing happened: in the late 80s, scientists discovered that if you took the egg away from the Condor, the female would simply lay another one. Bingo!

The egg count went up but this gave rise to another problem: Imprinting. Imprinting is the phenomena where a new born animal will think it is the very first thing it sees and as Ranger Dave explained, the last thing that was wanted was for the Condor chicks to think they were government employees.

So, the scientists developed condor puppets just like you see on Ranger Dave to feed and nurture the young condors. But this still didn't solve the problem of the abysmal survival rates of the captive-bred condors when they were released into the wild in the early 90s. Since breeding couples could not be taken out of the egg factory rotation, it was decided that formerly wild condors that had been brought into captivity would be released with the young Condors to serve as "mentors". This approach has appeared to work and everyone seems pleased with this approach.

Today, there are nearly 400 living Condors with an even split between those in captivity and those in the wild, with the vast majority of free condors (77) in the Grand Canyon area.

If any condor expert accidentally stumbles across this site and takes umbrage with any of the points presented herein... blame Ranger Dave.


K T Cat said...

Awesome post! Link forthcoming.

Anonymous said...

"...the last thing that was wanted was for the Condor chicks to think they were government employees."

i laughed. and then i remembered that i am agovernment employee.

and then laughed again.

Wollf Howlsatmoon said...

Did some work at the Hopper Mountain Condor Reserve last year.....amazing animals.

Butt Ugly too......

Foxfier said...

While that new study that found that a full third of "extinct" species were just hard to see from the road makes me a little skeptical about the exact numbers involved... still awesome. A feat of animal husbandry that should be studied and considered when anyone wants to do something similar!

Dean said...

Howls, it would appear to be a really fun retirement "job".

Foxie, given the high profile nature of the Condors over the decades, I tend to believe the numbers as given are more or less accurate.

Foxfier said...

I know bald eagles were "gone" from the valley I grew up in-- in spite of even a dang kid like me knowing there were several breeding pairs around. When an animal is endangered, the government can be really nasty about little things like "property rights" and such.

Banshee said...

Don't forget the crucial role of the condor car commercial! A truly classic tale from the secret annals of advertising.

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