At Grand Canyon National Park, female 119 and male 122, and female 127 and male 123, have paired up and selected nest cave locations on two cliff faces. While both cave entrances can be monitored by biologists from a plateau in the canyon and can be seen by the park’s five million summer visitors to the South Rim, the sheerness of the canyon walls make the nests inaccessible to climbers and verification of eggs uncertain.
The Arizona pairs are comprised of females hatched at San Diego Wild Animal Park and males hatched at the Los Angeles Zoo in spring 1995. All four birds were released to the wild in May 1997, at Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, 50 miles north of their current location on the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. The Peregrine Fund biologists have been monitoring the daily movement of the condors since their release and Park Service biologists have joined in monitoring the birds when they frequent the park. Park Service wildlife biologist Elaine Leslie confirms that since mid-February the paired males and females have been trading off incubation shifts at their nests, with off-time usually spent soaring in the nest area or returning to a supplemental feeding location at the Vermilion Cliffs.
California condors normally lay a single egg between late January and early April. The egg is incubated by both parents and hatches after approximately 56 days. Both parents share responsibility for feeding the nestling. At two or three months of age, the chick leaves the nest cavity but remains in the area where it is fed by its parents. The chick takes its first flight at six or seven months of age, but may not become fully independent of its parents until the following year.
"All we can do right now is faithfully watch and wait" said Chad Olson, National Park Service raptor biologist. "The parental behavior has us assuming that they’re caring for eggs. As the condors continue to trade nest guarding and incubation shifts, we’ll become anxious to see them succeed. Hopefully, sometime in early summer, we’ll see a chick peek out of a cave opening."
"Visitors repeatedly express that seeing condors here at the canyon has enhanced their experience," said Joe Alston, Grand Canyon National Park superintendent. To accommodate the potentially nesting condors, Park Service officials have restricted access to a rarely used trail and have rerouted the South Rim administrative helicopter route.
"After leading the Arizona field program over the past five years, our expectations have been met with the prospect of two pairs of condors at the threshold of breeding in the wild," stated Bill Burnham, president of the Peregrine Fund. "This accomplishment is the result of our project partners’ efforts and especially the 45 employees we asked to give a significant part of their lives so this species could have another chance. This is a great day for conservation and the team who made it happen," finished Burnham.
In the Sespe Condor Sanctuary, northwest of Los Angeles, California biologists from the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge and San Diego Zoological Society are monitoring two nest caves, each known to contain an egg, and another cave where a condor pair is demonstrating nest visits that are consistent with birds trading incubation shifts.
Concerned that the male of one pair was initially not sharing incubation duties with the female, biologists monitoring the confirmed egg decided to maximize the egg’s chance of survival by removing it from the nest and substituting an artificial egg. This process has been routinely successful with condors and with captive breeding programs for other birds such as bald eagles and peregrine falcons. The real egg was to be cared for at the Los Angeles Zoo until hatching was imminent and then biologists would return the egg to the nest.
However, when Zoological Society of San Diego Wildlife Scientist Mike Wallace was lowered into the Sespe pair’s nest area, the male had finally begun incubating the egg and refused to budge from it. "He just refused to give it up," Wallace said. "In order to protect the egg, the best thing was to leave it. This is a good sign that the male parent is committed to caring for his offspring and gives us some confidence that they will incubate the egg on their own."
In 1987, the last wild condors were captured for safe keeping, and from a captive population of 27 remaining condors, a captive rearing program commenced. Some of that program’s progeny were first released in 1992 and have been released annually to the wild since 1995. Last spring a pair of condors at the Grand Canyon produced the first wild-laid condor egg since 1986.
Last year’s nesting attempts by condors in both states produced two eggs that failed to hatch – typical for first reproduction attempts – and a single California hatchling that perished despite having been removed from the nest as an egg, captive-incubated, and returned to the nest just prior to hatching.
"This species is at a real benchmark in its recovery from near-extinction," said Andi Rogers, Arizona Game and Fish Department’s condor biologist. "Failed nesting attempts are not uncommon in the wild when young birds are trying to figure out reproduction and parenting for the first time."
"To feel secure in removing the condor from the list of endangered species, we need to establish one captive and two wild populations – each reproductively self-sustaining and containing at least 150 individuals," said Bruce Palmer, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service California Condor Recovery Coordinator. "Today, with 182 condors on earth, we have the kernel of that numeric goal. If this year or next we have successful reproduction in the wild, we’ll be making hard-fought conservation history."
Arizona condor recovery efforts are made possible in part through generous donations to The Peregrine Fund and from the Grand Canyon National Park Foundation. Progress on the Arizona portion of this endangered species recovery program can be monitored by visiting www.peregrinefund.org.
Note to Editors: Photo support for the condor recovery efforts in Arizona is available at www.peregrinefund.org.
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