Three endangered California condor chicks survive Dolan Fire in Big Sur

two condors touching heads.

An adult and juvenile California condor. Photo courtesy of Loi Nguyen


By Ashley McConnell and Olivia Beitelspacher
September 22, 2020

This story was prepared in collaboration with the Ventana Wildlife Society and Pinnacles National Park.

As the Dolan Fire sweeps through portions of Big Sur along the central California coast, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with the Ventana Wildlife Society and Pinnacles National Park to monitor the status of these critically endangered birds.

night photo of two people standing near vehicles with fire covered hills in the background.

The Dolan Fire in Monterey County burns in areas of Big Sur known to provide habitat for federally endangered California condors, one of the world’s largest and most critically imperiled birds. Photo courtesy of Kate Novoa and Connie McCoy

“The California Condor Recovery Program has faced setbacks in the past, but we will continue to work with our dedicated partners, the Ventana Wildlife Society and Pinnacles National Park, toward our ultimate goal of recovering the California condor in the wild,” said Steve Kirkland, condor field coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Ventana Wildlife Society reported that three of the five condor chicks in the fire area have survived, including “Iniko,” a chick who was named by the public while viewers around the world watched this chick and its parents on a live-streaming camera. The fire burned just 10 feet below the nest cavity, yet Iniko managed to survive.

“We were not optimistic as we hiked through the fire’s devastation,” said Joe Burnett, biologist with Ventana Wildlife Society. “To find Iniko alive and well is simply a miracle.”

a man stands on a scorched hill looking through binoculars.

Joe Burnett of the Ventana Wildlife Society peers through binoculars to survey damage after the Dolan Fire swept through portions of California condor habitat in Big Sur. Photo courtesy of Trey Kropp

a juvenile condor.

Baby condor "Iniko" first seen after the Dolan Fire burned through the nesting territory in Big Sur, California. Iniko is among three condor chicks that survived the Dolan Fire. Photo courtesy of Ventana Wildlife Society.

In addition to finding Iniko, chick #1033 was rescued from a cliff’s nest that was directly in the path of the fire’s advance. Working quickly, a field team from Ventana Wildlife Society and Pinnacles National Park saved the chick and delivered her to the Los Angeles Zoo where she will spend the next year until ready to be released back into the wild and reunited with her flock.

“We could see that the fire was burning toward 1033’s nest and offered to help rescue her while there was still a chance,” said Alacia Welch, acting condor program manager at Pinnacles National Park. “To see the fire burn over her nest just a few days later, really made me feel glad that we took action when we did.”

Unfortunately, Ventana Wildlife Society reported September 11 that two condor chicks, #1022 and #1029, did not survive the fire, and nine free-flying condors remain missing.

The survival of Iniko and the two other chicks is a testament to their strength and provides hope for the future of the species. These survivors will go on to help grow the California condor population in the wild.

“While the loss of these wild birds is discouraging, we will release nine more captive-reared birds later this fall, and we are hopeful the remaining wild chicks will strengthen the overall California condor population,” said Kirkland.

a scorched hill

Charred landscape following the Dolan Fire in Big Sur, which burns through habitat used by the federally endangered California condor. Credit: Joe Burnett/Ventana Wildlife Society

Thanks to the continued efforts of the Condor Recovery Program partnership, releases of new condors raised in captivity will occur despite the loss at the Big Sur Condor Sanctuary. A cohort of nine condors will be transferred to central California this month, seven of which will be released in San Simeon, California and the other two at Pinnacles National Park.

“We are so thankful to have such supportive partners to allow the important work we do to continue on while rebuilding as soon as possible,” said Kelly Sorenson, Ventana Wildlife Society executive director.

According to condor experts, changes in fire regimes are less likely to impact condors because of the birds’ mobility and ability to fly away from fires. And as the condor population continues to grow and their range continues to expand, catastrophic fire events like this one are less likely to have a significant impact on their recovery.

“My heart is broken because for more than 20 years I have devoted my life to these birds,” said Burnett. “To lose any is a tragedy but we will rise from the ashes and rebuild the condor’s sanctuary and continue our mission to recover this species.”

a condor flying above hills.

As large soaring birds, adult California condors have the ability to avoid fires by flying away from them. Credit: USFWS

For the latest information on the California condor flock in Big Sur, visit ventanaws.org/california-condor and Ventana Wildlife Society on Facebook. Also visit The Condor Cave on Facebook for information about the Southern California flock of condors.

 

Ashley McConnell

Ashley McConnell

About the writer...

Ashley McConnell is the public affairs supervisor for the Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office. Ashley established her love of wildlife and the great outdoors as a child exploring national parks in South Africa. Today, she guides a team of communicators who tell stories about the unique and diverse wildlife and wild places of the southern and central California coast.

You can find more of their work at http://www.fws.gov/ventura and http://www.facebook.com/VenturaFWO

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