Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Californian Condors gain 2.37% boost to numbers!

I heard recently that in a public release, 4 captive bred California Condors (Gymnogyps californianus) will be sent out to join the 67 wild condors in Arizona. This is a welcome boost to the species’ wild population, which currently numbers 169 spread across 3 states plus that rough number again in captivity. Before being re-introduced to Arizona, the species had suffered a massive decline across the US. This is mainly from hunting, disturbance by tourists and air traffic, and from pesticides. The numbers had dropped to 20 birds in the 80s, and now a strong captive population is producing young at a steady rate. Steady that is, for a bird which takes 6 years to mature, lays one egg at a time, breeds every other year and can live for just shy of 60 years (although this is usually between 40-50).

In the event that you do live in California, you can take Highway 89A from Kanab or Page to the Vermilion Cliffs (from Flagstaff take Highway 89 to Highway 89A) before turning north onto BLM Road 1065 (a dirt road next to the small house just east of the Kaibab Plateau) and continue about 2 miles to get to the Vermilion Cliffs Monument. The event starts at 1100 on the 7th of March.

Now, condors (both species) are new-world vultures, family Cathartidae. There are 7 living species split into 2 groups: the turkey vultures, black vulture and Californian condor (essentially, it is a giant turkey vulture) make up one group, whilst the Andean condor and King vulture (a stunning animal) make up the other group. The first group lives in North America, and the latter group is from South America. So, although they are only slightly related, if I refer to condors, please take this as both the Andean and Californian species.

During the Pleistocene epoch (1.8m-10,000 years ago) this species was very widespread, covering most of the Americas. There were two other members of the Gymnogyps genus, but these became extinct before man arrived. There was one sub-species of G. californianus; amplus which lived across America, even down into Florida. This sub-species was a bit larger than today’s, being about 2kg heavier on average, with a larger bill. Since the Holocene began (10,000 years ago to the present), the Californian condors range contracted and became increasingly inbred. Now, those who know their geology and paleontology will know that about 10,000 years ago, much of Americas megafauna died out, either as a result of human activity, or a massive climate shift, most likely a combination of both. Species which died out in America at this time include a number of species of elephants, dire wolves, short-faced bears, giant long horn bison, the glyptodonts, four species of giant ground sloth and saber-toothed cats. Now, after this extinction, surviving species increased massively in number, most notably the current sub-species of bison.

The Californian condors did not cope well with this huge extinction, and they reduced in numbers massively. Other larger relatives of condors (family Teratornithidae) died out with the megafauna (or did they? But that is for another day). All large birds need near perfect conditions with lots of hot thermals to soar upon, lots of food and water and little competition. Even 500 years ago, it was spread across the American South West. The Californian condor is known to kill small animals. This is probably a recent trait as its relative the Andean condor (Vultur gryphus) does not do this, so it may well be an adaption to new areas where it had to kill to survive. In my opinion, this species has been reduced in numbers somewhat by human persecution, but mainly because it is a scavenging bird that eats the carcasses of large animals. It could probably have struggled on and found new food sources from the massed numbers of bison, but the 19th century extinctions destroyed any hope of that. It seems to me that the Californian condor was a species doomed to extinction. We have however, saved it. Its numbers are rising, but the day will come when its concentrations hit a maximum. It will probably be a very low concentration: their food source is very limited in number. We are now just prolonging its eventual demise, but why?

I think that as long as people who give money to the charities which are keeping it alive, the people who do so much volunteer work to help the species and the people as well as the people who manage the companies and government departments who are instrumental in this task know that this is a species doomed to die without our help. Assuming we stopped helping it now, it could be extinct in only 1000 years (please remember, we are talking geologically here, human life spans are too short to talk about the natural world in) which is no time at all. But it is a stunning bird, the second largest flying bird in the world that lives in a fairly accessible location. I myself have seen these birds in captivity, and seeing this bird flying in its aviary was unforgettable. The sight of the 10’ wide wings, black with a white flash, propelling that massive body up into the air; its muscles straining before it could soar and down onto its perch. Now, imagine seeing that in the wild, somewhere where it wouldn’t run out of flying space, somewhere where it can live its life free without needing to be surveyed, checked upon and helped constantly by us.

That is what we should be aiming to do, get the species to a stable state (which doesn’t mean 1,000,000 of them in the wild, 330 as we have at the moment is fine) and within a small area so it can breed easily. We stick a perimeter fence around the area to prevent egg thieves (admittedly, this is the only area we should be helping, the low lives that are egg thieves could love a condor or two) and put up watch posts where people can observe them. Leave them alone to live their lives, stay out of their way and don’t disturb them too much. Condors often break their eggs after being disturbed or being frightened: the eggs can roll off the nest whilst the huge adult moves to look at the potential threat. We get rid of these daft tags they have on at the moment and let them be properly free. The species has bred in the wild recently, so they can do it without our help. The conservation of these animals has cost $35 million, so let’s quit whilst we are ahead, and move on to saving something else. The species will survive for a while before reverting to its natural progression and becoming extinct; it’s incredible temperature tolerance (0-40 degrees C) and longevity will see to that. We ourselves are probably doomed to die only a few hundred years, but if we see through that we as a species will die out for the opposite reason as the Californian condor: we will die out from over population.

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