Thursday, September 21, 2000
One day this summer, a small flock of California condors landed on the roof of John Alvord''s Pfeiffer Ridge home in Big Sur and stationed themselves there like giant feathered gargoyles with bad breath and questionable manners. Later in the day, while Alvord worked in his second-floor office, the renegade raptors entered the house through an open door and tried to make off with some of their host''s belongings. "I wound up with five condors on the roof, and later in the day they entered the house and pulled out some rugs," recalls Alvord, adding that the birds flew off when he came downstairs.
The California condor, once reduced to a smattering of birds by illegal shootings, collisions with power lines and lead ingestion, is making headlines again. The flurry of press follows the August publication of an article by Indiana University biologist Vicky J. Meretsky and co-authors in Conservation Biology. According to the authors, the condors'' interest in humanity (more common in Southern California condors than the Big Sur birds) and the lingering danger of lead in the environment are two major problems for the condor rehabilitation program. "Although continued releases... could resolve ongoing behavioral problems, they cannot be expected to result in self-sustaining populations unless solutions to lead contamination (and possibly other mortality factors) are implemented," write Meretsky et al.
The article has raised questions about the feasibility of the program. The Ventana Wilderness Society, a local non-profit organization responsible for the release and care of the 14 condors in the Big Sur area, believes that the points mentioned in Meretsky''s article are solvable problems that have been overblown in the media.
"My overall take on all these articles is that it''s a bit drastic, a bit doomsdayish," says Kelly Sorenson, assistant director of the Ventana Wilderness Society.
Controversy is nothing new for the condor reintroduction program, which has been debated since its inception in 1987, when the last 27 condors were rounded up and put in a captive breeding program. The idea of capturing the remaining condors irked some environmentalists who felt that nature should run its course, even if that meant the demise of the scavenging bird known for its 9-foot wingspan.
The goal of the reintroduction program is to have two separate self-sustaining condor groups with a total population of 300 birds. The current population, including both wild and captive birds, is 169. The Peregrine Fund is running a program in Arizona while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service builds a southern California condor colony and the Ventana Wilderness Society works on the Big Sur population.
Critics of the program, such as Ventura County Star assistant opinion editor John Krist, believe that not enough action has been taken to ensure its success. In an August 16 opinion article titled "Lead Poisoning Threatens California Condor Comeback" (also printed in the San Jose Mercury News), Krist poses the question: "What good does it do to boost the population of an imperiled species if those creatures are then returned to an environment where the threat that drove them toward extinction still persists?"
The deaths of four condors earlier this year in Arizona seem to have resulted from lead poisoning. Though the Big Sur population has not experienced a fatality, Sorenson admits that lead toxicity is a problem for all scavenging wildlife and believes that the Meretsky article is meant to be an environmental call to arms rather than a reason to throw in the towel.
"I think the main thing that the authors are trying to do is create action, to force action to remedy the lead toxicity problem," he says. Environmentalists are hoping that a new bullet composed of tin, tungsten and bismuth will be on the market soon, but until then the only alternative is to suggest copper or fail-safe slugs, which are not carried in local hunting stores. The alternative bullets can be special ordered by the hunting stores for interested individuals.
The Conservation Biology article also mentions that behavioral problems threaten the success of the reintroduction program. "Excessive tameness and curiosity towards humans and urbanized areas have also contributed to high mortality rates in releases, mainly via collisions," opine Meretsky and co-authors.
Behavioral problems in Big Sur have not resulted in any fatalities, but the first batch of condors released in the area during the winter of 1997 were recaptured because they were too tame. As it happens, those birds were raised by puppets rather than condor parents. Scientists have boosted the condor population by taking eggs from the condor mothers in captivity and raising the young from the stolen eggs by human-operated condor puppets, but there may be problems with that practice. "Our data suggests that puppet-reared birds are more likely to associate with human structures, and even humans on occasion, compared to parent-reared birds," says Sorenson.
The condors in Big Sur, who are all parent-reared except for one, went through a spell of visiting homes more often after returning from a visit to the other condors in Southern California.
"The oldest birds flew down to Southern California and interacted with the flock down there, which, by the way, is predominantly comprised of puppet-reared birds," says Sorenson.
The Southern California condors have invaded homes in the small community of Pine Mountain Club, and the condor crew at the Ventana Wilderness Society thinks it''s possible that the birds who landed on Alvord''s home picked up some bad habits from their southern California cousins. The Wilderness Society has decided to use negative reinforcement to keep the birds from hanging around Big Sur homes. Members of the condor crew are asking homeowners to spray the condors with a garden hose to flush them from the area. The Wilderness Society is also getting prepared to receive eight motion-activated sprinklers with roof mounts, the kind used to keep deer out of gardens, to give to Big Sur homeowners.
The negative enforcement seems to be working. "I still see them flying by, but they don''t seem as interested," says Alvord, who has sprayed visiting condors with a garden hose.
The Wilderness Society is hopeful that the Big Sur condors'' behavioral problems are just a phase caused by a lack of parental guidance in the wild. "A lot of what goes on in a young animal''s life until it reaches adulthood, especially without parents, is trial and error," says Sorenson.
Sorenson believes the success or failure of the program can''t be determined at such an early stage and notes that the impressive restoration of the bald eagle and peregrine falcon populations took 25 years.
"If you want to call this project a failure, come back and ask me the question in 32 years, ''cause it is way too early to judge," he says.
Follow the trials and tribulations of the Big Sur condors at www.ventanaws.org.