U.S. Fish and Wildlife Conducts Health Check on Free-Flight California Condors at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge
Staff from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) are conducting health checks on the Southern California flock of California condors at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge in Kern County, California. The health checks are an ongoing part of the California Condor Recovery Program, which is returning condors to the wild. Condors now occupy most of their recent historic range from Monterey and San Benito Counties south through Ventura County and north into the Southern Sierra Nevada.
To conduct the heath checks, field biologists first trap wild condors by leaving a carcass inside a pen on the Refuge; and once a California condor is inside, they close the door to contain the bird. It is netted and moved out of the pen for the health check, which starts with a visual inspection of the bird, to look for any injuries. Then, the bird’s feet are cleaned, and staff take a blood sample that will be used to test for lead on-site, which takes about 15 minutes to conduct.
While waiting for the results of the lead testing, staff check the state of the bird’s tracking device and will replace the transmitter, if needed. The condor is also weighed by staff during this check, as weight loss can indicate a possible health issue with the bird. Once the results of the lead testing are complete—and the level of lead in the blood is not high—the bird is released. If the lead level was too high, the bird would be returned to the pen and staff would prepare to transport the condor for lead-poisoning treatment at Los Angeles Zoo.
On May 25, 2016, Condor AC-4 received a health check. One of the founding males of the California Condor Recovery Program, AC-4 was taken from the wild and helped establish the captive breeding group. AC-4 lived at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park for 30 years and fathered the first captive-born California condor, which hatched in 1988. AC-4 was released into the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge in 2015, and he was found to be in excellent health this year, with very low lead levels in his blood.
Don Sterner, animal care manager from the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, observed the health check and was able to release AC-4 following the condor’s evaluation.
The California Condor Recovery Program is implemented by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, Ventana Wildlife Society, the Peregrine fund, zoos in the U.S. and Mexico,and Mexican government agencies. Although listed by the USFWS as an endangered species in 1967, the California condor population continued to decline, reaching a critical low of less than two dozen birds. In 1982, the condor breeding program was successfully established at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and the Los Angeles Zoo. Today, two additional breeding centers are assisting with the recovery of the species, at the Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey and the Oregon Zoo. In addition, condors are part of an education program that allows guests at the San Diego Zoo, the Santa Barbara Zoo, Phoenix Zoo and Mexico City’s Chapultepec Zoo to see North America’s largest bird up close.
In the 1980s, there were only 22 California condors left in the wild. To date, the Safari Park has hatched 188 chicks and released more than 130 birds into their natural habitat. Currently, there are more than 435 California condors—more than half of which are flying free in California, Arizona and Baja California, Mexico.