CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new book documents the history of the California condor in the Pacific Northwest from northern California to British Columbia, an important step in discussions that could lead to reintroduction of the giant birds to the Northwest in the future.
No immediate plans for Northwest reintroduction exist, the authors say, but establishing a history of the condors’ presence is a prerequisite for potential reintroduction of the birds in the near future, noted Susan Haig, a co-author of the book, which is being published by the Oregon State University Press.
“Condors are iconic symbols to many Northwest tribes, and they were an important part of many ecosystems in the West,” said Haig, who is a professor of wildlife ecology at OSU and a wildlife ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. “Unlike other endangered species – such as spotted owls – they don’t require specific habitat to thrive. They like big open areas and can be found today in the Grand Canyon as well as the mountains and coastal area around Monterey, Calif.”
The OSU Press book, “California Condors in the Pacific Northwest,” was written by Jesse D’Elia, a Ph.D. candidate under Haig and now a wildlife ecologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Portland and by Haig. It is available from the OSU Press at: http://osupress.oregonstate.edu/book/california-condors-in-pacific-northwest.
At nearly 10 feet, California condors have the largest wingspan of all land birds in North America. Their existence dates back to prehistoric times in the Northwest, and they were present in Oregon as recently as 1920, according to Haig. “Noted naturalist William Finley had one named ‘General’ as a pet,” she said. “It ended up at the New York Zoo.”
“Lewis and Clark reported condors all along the Columbia River,” Haig added, “and they were sighted at Willamette Falls as well.”
The historic population of condors is difficult to estimate, the authors say, and only an estimated 240 today live in the wild in North America. An additional 170 live in captivity. The Oregon Zoo in Portland is one of only four captive breeding facilities for the species.
The reasons for their decline are varied and not well-documented, Haig said. Condors are scavengers and feed on the carcasses of dead animals – some of which have been poisoned and others that contain fragments from bullets containing lead, which can be lethal. As electric power lines began dotting the West, others were electrocuted. And in an odd twist, some condors were killed by museum collectors in the 19th century so they could be put on display.
“In the 1800s, many museums were just starting and building their collections,” Haig said. “We do know that museum operators from Paris and Germany came all the way over to the West Coast to kill condors for their collections.”
D’Elia has collected condor bone and tissue samples from numerous museums around the world, and along with Haig and other colleagues is analyzing their DNA in an effort to determine their population structure prior to their decline.
“The California condor is an endangered species that captures our collective imagination,” D’Elia said. “Reading through the first-hand accounts of early explorers encountering condors, it isn’t hard to envision these giant birds once soaring through the skies of the Pacific Northwest in numbers. In addition to stirring our imagination, evaluating the history of condors in the region helps us understand where condors once occurred, how common they were and why they disappeared.”
Some of the factors that led to their decline could be barriers to potential reintroduction, Haig said.
“Hunting is not really an issue,” Haig emphasized, “but the use of lead bullets to kill animals that condors feed on is an issue. Hunting actually benefits condors because it provides fresh carcasses upon which they can feed. Lead bullet fragments left in carcasses are deadly to a variety of non-targeted wildlife, however, including condors. Power lines were an issue, but condors in captivity are now trained to avoid them prior to their release.”
“In fact, condors are incredibly smart and cool animals,” Haig said. “They recognize individuals and remember them. One bird can be mad at another bird for years at a time, and even recognize that animal a decade later. They have a very strong social structure and older birds pass behaviors along to younger birds. They typically are monogamous and pair for life.”
“They only produce one egg at a time, and the parents fight over who gets to take care of that egg,” Haig said. “They are obsessive parents. But if the fledgling can survive, that young condor could potentially live to a ripe old age of 50 to 60 years.”