16 - 31 January 2003
Sophie Osborn— 16 January 2003 — in California Condor Restoration Share
The skies were brilliantly clear, the winds light, and spirits high as we scanned the skies for our first glimpse of the condor transport plane. At last we received the word that it would be landing in a few minutes. The plane touched down just after noon. For the first time in recorded history, there were 41 condors in Arizona! The Peregrine Fund’s condor field crew and representatives from the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Arizona Game and Fish Department, the Bureau of Land Management, and Grand Canyon National Park, all moved toward the plane to transfer the transport kennels to awaiting vehicles. The large dog kennels, each of which contained an eight- or nine-month-old condor, were draped in dark shade cloth, to help keep the young condors calm during their journey. A BIG “Thank you” to Norm and Ann for getting our new condors to us quickly and safely.
After transferring the kenneled condors, we carefully set off on the long drive to the release area. It was a far bumpier journey for the young condors than their plane ride had been, but all seemed to weather this final leg of their journey well. A few hours later, the field crew and our many cooperators carried the heavy kennels down to the flight pen up on the Vermilion Cliffs. One by one, we opened up the kennels and introduced the young condors to their new home. The eight new condors consist of five males: Condors 272, 273, 274, 275, 276; and three females: Condors 280, 281, and 282.
All were extremely nervous about leaving the dark safety of their kennels. We actually had to take several kennels apart because the birds were so reluctant to come out. Once out of the kennels, however, three of the youngsters, Condors 272, 274, and 280, frantically tried to get as far away from us as possible. They repeatedly hurled themselves against the wire mesh sides of their new enclosure, before finally hopping up onto perches. Several of the other juveniles seemed so bewildered that they just stood and looked at us upon finally emerging from their respective kennels. We immediately chased (or hazed) these birds away from us. By doing so, we hoped to begin instilling a critical first lesson—that people are not always nice and it’s best to keep one’s distance from them! One young bird, Condor 282, seemed especially unwary. Nevertheless, after hopping up to the safety of a perch, she trembled all over, until we had exited the pen.
New condor arrivals to Arizona always look impeccable and shiny-new: sleek and dark, with not a brand-new feather out of place! Aside from being impressed by their appearance, we also delighted in their activity level. Over the next few weeks, the new youngsters were incredibly active. From our observation blind, we watched them fly back and forth across their pen, explore their water tub and learn to feed on calf carcasses. While working out their dominance hierarchy, some birds squabbled while others cuddled together and preened each other. By observing the outcome of neck-wrestling matches among the youngsters and seeing which birds dominated the carcass or favored perches, we began to determine which birds were the more dominant in their age cohort and which were more submissive.
Within the first few days of arriving in Arizona, the new juveniles were also given an introduction to a hazard that they might encounter upon being released to the wild. Our flight pen contains a mock power pole that is electrified. Upon landing on the power pole, which is the tallest, most appealing perch in the pen, the young condors get an electric shock (equivalent to touching an electric fence). Within a few days, the juvenile condors no longer tried to perch on the power pole! Such aversion training has greatly reduced electrocution as a cause of mortality for newly released condors.
In addition to exploring their new enclosure, the young condors also became introduced to the free-flying condor flock. Each day free-flying visitors landed on or next to the flight pen and interacted with the new juveniles. Such interactions appear to facilitate the young birds’ acceptance into the wild flock when they are finally introduced to the wild.
Despite their interest in the new arrivals, most of the older birds remained preoccupied with courtship activities. Displays, chases, and attempted mountings were a common sight. We even saw several copulations: male Condor 162 with female Condor 133, and male Condor 122 with female Condor 119. Although we usually delight in the pre-breeding activities of the condors, speculating on who will become a future pair and where they might nest, the antics of several of the five- and six-year-old males during January made us realize that sometimes the enthusiasm and persistence of multiple suitors can be a little too much for a female. Condor 176, our most spectacular flier, was consistently pursued by Condors 158, 187, and 193. We hoped that Condor 158 would be successful in garnering Condor 176’s attentions, but nearly every time he tried to display to her, Condors 187 and 193 would break up the duo and try to mount Condor 176. Condor 187, who is Condor 176’s brother, was especially aggressive and persistent. On January 17, it appeared that the transmitter that is attached to Condor 176’s right wing had become twisted. We had never before had a transmitter become tweaked in such a way. Although we did not witness the event, we strongly suspected that the males’ continual attempts to scrabble up onto Condor 176’s back to mount her had caused the problem.
Although the misaligned transmitter didn’t inhibit her flight, poor Condor 176 was clearly uncomfortable and for a day held her wing out or continually flicked it in an apparent attempt to dislodge what was hurting her. We quickly set up our condor trap to retrap Condor 176 in the hopes of looking her over and fixing the transmitter’s alignment. We also decided to trap and temporarily hold Condor 187. We did not want to risk Condor 176 being injured, especially as a result of the overly amorous intentions of her brother!
Fortunately, on January 18, Condor 176’s transmitter seemed to right itself on its own and Condor 176 appeared to be comfortable and relaxed again. Nevertheless, we persisted in our trapping attempts and on January 20 crewmember Ty Donnelly was finally successful! Condor 176’s transmitter had indeed righted itself and her wing showed no indication of any injury. Before releasing her back to the wild, however, we kept her overnight in our flight pen for an observation period. Meanwhile, on the afternoon of January 20, after successfully trapping Condor 176, Ty reset the trap and managed to trap Condor 187! As usual, Condor 187 was his usual ferocious self in the hand, but Ty and temporary crewmember Tim Bischof managed to extract him from the trap and transport him to our release pen without incident. The following day, after re-releasing Condor 176, we transferred Condor 187 to our flight pen where he would spend a few weeks serving as a reluctant mentor to the newly-arrived young condors.
As the month progressed, our “quad,” consisting of Condors 114, 126, 133, and 162, continued to disappear together around the southwest corner of the Paria Plateau, just south of the release area. To our delight, on January 19, we were finally able to confirm that they were fixated on a potential nest cave! For the rest of January, all four birds spent several hours each day going in and out of the cave, engaging in courtship displays, or just loafing on the surrounding cliffs. Unfortunately, the four did not seem any more inclined to divide into two pairs than they had earlier in the year! Both males continued to be most interested in female Condor 133, though Condor 162 occasionally displayed to tag-along female Condor 126. Male Condors 114 and 162 still appeared to display to each other almost as frequently as they displayed to the females.
Could a “quad” ever be successful in laying and incubating an egg or did we need to consider recapturing two of the group and temporarily holding them to try to force the quad into becoming two pairs? Although we increasingly began to think this would be our best option, recapturing two of the birds was stymied by our inability to decide which two birds to pull! For the time being, we decided to continue observing our “quad’s” continually evolving relationship in the hopes that preferences among the birds would become clearer over time. If we could determine which male Condor 133 preferred, we would be more likely to make the best possible decision to ensure successful future pairings among these highly endangered birds.
Until next time …
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