On a balmy day in late April, Nicole Weprin and Dave Meyer are standing atop a hill, surrounded by meadow-covered mountains. A few hundred yards below is a large pen. Outside the pen, sunning themselves with wings outstretched, are three wild condors — two of which are wearing numbered tags. Meyer glasses them with a high-power spotting scope and reads the numbers off to Weprin, who jots them down.
“We always confirm visuals,” said Meyer. “Every time we see a bird we try to confirm numbers. We try to make sure the bird is accounted for and healthy.”
Dave Meyer is a California condor biologist with the Santa Barbara Zoo, and a graduate of UW-Stevens Point. Nicole Weprin is a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. They co-lead a field crew of about a dozen scientists at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge in the Los Padres National Forest, about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Along with the people who reside and work and recreate here, they are the California Condor Recovery Project.
“It’s an incredible collaborative effort,” Weprin said.
“The birds have intrinsic value and it’s our job to save them,” Meyer added.
The saving is courtesy of the species that almost eradicated them in the first place. But first, the birds have to take a number.
Have you ever played Nature by Numbers?
Here; let’s try it with California condors.
66. 0. 1987. 933. 20. 5. 26,000. 90. 109. 23. 1992. 1.
Every one of those numbers has significance when it comes to condors.
The California condor is the largest raptor in North America. From wingtip to mighty wingtip it measures 109 inches — more than nine feet across. It’s often mistaken for a small plane.
By 1982, there were only 23 left on Earth. In 1987, the last wild condor was physically removed from the wild. None remaining. Zero. That’s when the California Condor Recovery Project took over.
That last condor, captured in 1987, was caught right there, in the valley we’re standing in. After five years of captive breeding, the first of the trapped birds was released back into the wild.
“The untagged youngster is Number 933,” Meyer explained to me. “Mom is Number 654 there in the middle, and Dad is Number 20.”
The birds are tagged in chronological order of capture, so the oldest living birds have the lowest numbers. The tags are color-coded, so Number 654 is “purple 54 — the 54th bird tagged in (Purple 54). The immature has yet to be captured.
“Condors are very social,” Meyer said. “When you see one, there are more around.”
There are currently about 90 birds in the Southern California population, dispersed from San Luis Obispo and Fillmore on the south to the southern boundary of Yosemite National Park. There are several other concurrent regional recovery projects — one in Arizona, and another based in Pinnacles National Park in Coastal CA. Between the projects, there are now more than 400 wild California condors roaming the American Southwest.
“A lot of people haven’t seen them,” Weprin said. “It’s our objective to teach kids that these birds live in their backyard. That thought then triggers a care response.”
Using stillborn calves as bait, wild condors are lured into the flight pen at Bitter Creek. They are then processed and released the same day. From that hour on, the birds are tracked by Weprin and Meyer, using transmitters attached to the bird’s tail feathers.
“We do biennial processing,” Meyer explained. “We update the telemetry and do a medical check-up.”
The number one threat to California Condors is and has always been lead. The condors soar high above California, seeking carrion. They’ve been doing it since the Pleistocene, when they picked at the carcasses of wooly mammoths. Today, when they consume rotting meat, they also ingest the lead shot left behind by hunters.
“Every single bird has some exposure to lead,” Weprin said. “But if it does, we can bring it in for treatment. We know where every bird is, so when a bird gets sick, we are there to care for it.”
Weprin and Meyer are quick to point out that while hunting has been central to the condor’s demise, it’s also a huge part of their future survival.
“Hunters are ready and willing to switch to non-lead alternatives,” Meyer said. Lead shot is not only fatal to condors but to waterfowl. So Californians have decided to make a change in their historical habits.
“On July 1st the lead ban goes into effect,” Meyer said. “After that, you can’t take any animal with lead shot in the entire state of California.”
Wisconsin recently conducted an advisory referendum on lead shot, but has yet to implement a ban.
Another threat to condors is “micro trash” — bits of plastic and metal litter that the condors pick up and return to their nests. That micro trash can then be digested by the chicks. But that too is changing.”
“People are more mindful about what they put in the environment,” Meyer assured.
The Condor Project relies on high-intensity outreach to spread the word about condors, not only by working with hunters, but by staffing booths at zoos, and educating school children. The results have been positive.
“California is pro-condor,” Meyer stated. “Ninety-nine of 100 people we talk to are pro-condor.
The oldest living condor resides, not in the wild, but at the L.A. Zoo. He’s at least 66 years old. Since the females mature at five years of age, and the males at six, the L.A. patriarch has been able to do his part to regenerate his race.
“A 66-year-old bird can produce 30-plus chicks — one chick every other year,” said Meyer.
And careful custodial year by year, the endangered bird is reclaiming its place in America’s wildscape.
“The species has been in the public eye for a long time,” Weprin mused. “I think people love ‘em. There’s that draw to them. They’re a super unique bird.”
“You’d have to be the ultimate pessimist or disingenuous to believe that the birds will not recover,” added Meyer.
Between the Los Padres National Forest on the south and Yosemite National Park on the north is about 26,000 miles of Southern California, or about one condor per 288 square miles. Not a lot of birds, but a vast improvement on nothing for 1987. How much is that worth in dollars and cents?
You want to play that game?
Might as well number the times life has moved you to laughter or tears. Number the wishes that have come true, and those that haven’t. Number the stars.
“These are not our birds; they’re everyone’s birds,” Meyer said. “I can bring my grandchildren here one day to see 933.”
Weprin agreed. “It’s fun to know that a bird I saw from an egg could still be here in 60 years. It’s a generational bird, for sure.”