Thom Lord— 16 May 2005 — in California Condor Restoration ShareGreetings, Notes from the Field readers! To those that have been following the saga of wild-hatched Condor 342, the month of April held an exciting and encouraging conclusion to the first stage in this young bird’s life. After being captured in January due to evident health problems, Condor 342 had been transported to the Phoenix Zoo for surgery to remove a blockage in his digestive tract. He remained in captivity for nearly 20 days, leaving us unsure as to whether his parents, who were still providing food for him until his capture, would accept and care for him again when he was re-released. Upon being released, Condor 114, Condor 342’s father, picked up right where he had left off. The mother, however, seemed to abandon both birds almost entirely.
Condor 114 continued to feed Condor 342 regularly until mid-March. He was also seen in regular courtship displays with an adult female, Condor 126, for a large part of this time. Until mid-March, it was unclear whether Condor 114 would actually try to produce another chick in the 2005 breeding season while still caring for his offspring from the previous season. California Condors typically produce only one chick every other year, as the breeding pair usually tends to their chick for well over twelve months. There were obviously a number of unusual factors in Condor 342’s situation, though—he had been temporarily removed from his parents’ care, his mother had abandoned him, and his father had become involved with another female. In this soap opera that was Condor 342’s life, we couldn’t predict what might happen. Based on the observed behavior of Condors 114 and 126 by late March to early April, it seemed probable that Condor 114 was going to have another egg to care for, and we had no idea what this meant for the fate of Condor 342.
Condors 114 and 126 began incubating their egg in the first few days of April, and by that time we hadn’t been able to confirm Condor 114 feeding Condor 342 for almost two weeks. Condor 342 was becoming hard to find (having a failed radio-transmitter), and on 6 April, we decided to begin placing carcasses near where Condor 342 had been hanging out. The hope was that he would find and feed on the carcasses on his own. That very same day, as if on cue, Condor 342 showed up at the release site and fed on carcasses alongside all of the other birds at the site. He stayed there for the rest of the month, feeding regularly and integrating into the rest of the flock with the other young birds. Meanwhile, Condors 114 and 126 continued to incubate their egg, paying little more attention to Condor 342 than any of the other young birds.
In addition to Condor 342’s arrival at the release site, 6 April turned out to be an eventful day for other, less positive, reasons. At the same time that we were becoming very worried about Condor 342 getting enough food, another young bird, Condor 347, was also a growing concern. Condor 347 had been seen a number of times near carcasses, but had not actually been seen feeding since soon after his release. He had been flying quite a bit, and we thought it probable that he had been feeding on carcasses placed out of view from our observation blind, but it was nonetheless disconcerting that we hadn’t actually seen him feed. We needed to get our hands on this bird.
On 6 April, crewmember Beau Fairchild hiked up the steep talus slope below the Vermilion Cliffs release site in order to assess Condor 347’s condition, and it was immediately obvious to him that the bird was not doing well. I followed shortly after with a hand net and climbing gear to make an attempt at capturing Condor 347. After one failed attempt, Beau and I were able to capture him, and Beau made an impressive hands-free hike down the loose talus while holding the bird. Project supervisor Chris Parish hiked up to meet us halfway with a travel kennel, in which we were able to carry the bird the rest of the way. We gave Condor 347 subcutaneous fluids and small amounts of food, hoping to stabilize him enough to be able to nurse him back to health, but his condition was already too dire. He lived for two days in our treatment facility, and his condition went from bad to better and back to worse. When his condition worsened, we attempted to get him to the Phoenix Zoo for more extensive treatment, but he died in transit. It was a heartbreaking ending to a vigorous effort. As a precaution, we immediately trapped and assessed all of the other juveniles that were released with Condor 347. Fortunately, all were in very good condition, and seemed to be making it through this vulnerable stage in their lives quite well.
These young birds, as well as the rest of the birds in the population, used the warmer April weather to begin traveling extensively. A number of birds took their first flights away from the release site, typically taking short exploratory flights up the Colorado River corridor, then returning to the site. Numerous older juveniles took longer flights upriver, spending a lot of time in the area of Navajo Bridge, and even going as far as Lake Powell. Others followed the river in the other direction, going to Grand Canyon National Park, where we documented birds feeding on at least two wild carcasses. Perhaps the most exciting news from April was that we were able to confirm incubation behavior in three pairs of adults, indicating the presence of eggs. Three of the six birds—Condor 114, as well as the pair of Condors 123 and 127—have had past success in hatching wild chicks, so we’ll keep our fingers and toes crossed as we observe them for the next few months, hoping for three new wild-hatched chicks to enter the free-flying population.
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