July 10, 2008

Fires Create Concern For California’s Condors

The fate of three condor chicks born in April in the wild are currently unknown. The chicks play a critical role in California's reintroduction of the threatened species, which have a low breeding rate and lay eggs only once every two years.

One nest was in the fire's path, and flames had spoiled an aviary where captive chicks are held and trained before being released into the wild.

"We have three mating condor pairs this year and three active nests that we are really concerned about. We don't know if the chicks are dead or not," Cathy Keeran of the Ventana Wildlife Society told Reuters. The nonprofit group is the only one releasing and managing California condors in the wild.

Keeran said eight captive chicks were rescued by helicopter in a remote canyon in Big Sur before the fire went through their home in the society's aviary.  

The Big Sur fire was sparked by lightning strikes that occurred on June 21, and containment is not expected until the end of the month. It has consumed more than 80,000 acres so far, destroying 48 homes and other structures, according to fire officials who spoke on Tuesday.  

The region is set for a three-day heat wave that is expected to bring low humidity and triple digit temperatures, further aggravating efforts to control both the Big Sur fire and a separate fire further south near Santa Barbara that has consumed over 9,700 acres in seven days.

The blaze has already swept through a wild area where one of the chicks was nesting.

"We did fly over the nest and we saw the area was burned but the redwood tree (containing the nest) was still standing," Keeran told Reuters.

The nests for the remaining two condor chicks are closer to the Pacific Ocean, but Keeran said their fate remained unknown amid the acrid smoke covering the region.

The Ventana Wildlife Society manages 43 of Big Sur's wild condors, equipping the birds with tracking devices and providing them with supplemental food.
"We have a couple we have not been able to locate. Hopefully their transmitters are just not working properly," said Keeran.

"Most are staying very low and towards the coast and in the fog line, so they are flying around the fire."

Experts have been working to prevent the extinction of the California condor for more than four decades. The bird, the largest in North America, was declared an endangered species in 1967.  By 1977 there were only an estimated 25-30 condors in the wild until scientists began breeding them in captivity and releasing them in the mid-1990s. Results have been mixed.


Image Caption: A California Condor at the Condor Ridge exhibit of the San Diego Wild Animal Park. Photo by Chuck Szmurlo (Wikipedia)