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Fire Threatens Pair of Condor Chicks

July 2, 2008

By Lisa M. Krieger, San Jose Mercury News, Calif.

Jul. 2–One rare California condor chick may be dead and two others are in areas too dangerous to be saved, as the Big Sur-based Basin fire creeps into their once-serene canyons.

“It is horrible, but there is nothing we can do,” said Kelly Sorenson of Ventana Wildlife Society, which monitors each bird along the vast central coast. Thick smoke thwarted an attempted rescue Tuesday morning.

“We’re just waiting, watching and hoping for the best. Our hands are tied,” he said.

Last year was the first time in a century that Big Sur’s tiny population of wild condors — among the rarest and most imperiled birds in the world — conceived two chicks. This year’s birth of three chicks was cause for celebration.

“The death of only one would be a significant loss, a tragedy,” Sorenson said. There are only 151 wild condors in the world; 23 of them live in Big Sur, reintroduced from captivity by the Ventana Wildlife Society.

The young chicks are about 2 1/2 months old, still covered in downy gray feathers yet already the size of chickens. Too young to fly, they are confined to their nests.

One, perched 200 feet up an ancient redwood tree, was located in a remote interior part of Ventana Wilderness Area — which is now completely burned. Although the tree remains standing, biologists fear that the heat and smoke were deadly.

The other two live in more coastal nests, not yet burned but within a quarter mile of the fire. Because of cool coastal fog, their prospects seem better.

The rapid spread of the fire — growing 7,643 acres Monday night — sent Ventana Wildlife Society biologists to their rescue Tuesday morning.

“But the smoke and fog was so thick that there is no way to get in safely,” Sorenson said.

Even a successful rescue held its own risks — at that young age, captivity and the loss of a parent can be catastrophic, he said. Particularly if the weather stays foggy, “they have a better chance of surviving if left in the nest.”

The condors are part of a reintroduction program administrated by the Ventana Wildlife Society.

The good news is that relocated populations of condors seem safe. Eight captive 1-year-old chicks, airlifted to Pinnacles National Monument by a Coast Guard helicopter, are healthy.

And 44 adult wild birds, each wearing a radio transmitter, all have been accounted for. They have flown out of smoky areas toward the coast, said Ventana Wildlife Society spokeswoman Cathy Keeran.

They are likely to thrive once the fire dies down, she said, eating animals killed by flames.

“They will have one heck of a barbecue smorgasbord,” she said.

IF YOU’RE INTERESTED: For more information or to donate, go to www.ventanaws.org.

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Copyright (c) 2008, San Jose Mercury News, Calif.

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