WASHINGTON — In an historic feat, two California condors built by volunteers as part of a captive breeding program hatched in the wild — with baby chicks successfully hatching in a nongame migratory bird area off the coast of Southern California in the wild for the first time.
This feat is especially significant because both chicks are male. That means California condors will have two female and two male chicks to focus on in the coming years. Condors must be in the opposite order of eggs: males need their female siblings and females need males.
“I’m personally elated for these birds. I’m incredibly proud of the team for making this possible,” said biologist Jim Fox of the Wildlife Conservation Society. Fox coordinated the condor breeding program.
The chicks are the first for the California condor captive breeding program in the wild.
Adult condors are descended from one female who was introduced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the early 1900s as part of a reintroduction effort that stalled under President Reagan. During the Reagan administration, the captive program was aborted in the wake of the 1989 release of a male condor named Lonesome George that quickly went on to develop problems associated with bird sex.
The fact that there are now condors in the wild is remarkable for two reasons: the success of the captive program, which has grown over the years, and the fact that the California condor population is low enough in the wild where a successful population didn’t need to be expanded. Condors have been on the endangered species list since 1967, but for a population of 250 to 300, the population has to be many times greater than that in order to protect the animals.
It also is important to keep in mind that the young birds were hatched in the wild in a sanctuary in California, not on a federally recognized protected wildlife habitat.
“Condors in the wild are in better shape than condors we’ve ever seen before in California,” said Ilse Thompson, assistant director of the Condor Project. “There’s nowhere else in the world where people can see a population like this. We hope now that they can build on that and help spread the word that there’s a California condor population and a wild population, and they’re in better shape than they’ve ever been.”
The California condor population of about 250 to 300 has been on the endangered species list since 1967, when a population in the Southern California desert population went extinct. Condors also live in central Arizona, where the reintroduction program is also active. This is the first time a successful population outside of the Southern California desert has been seen in the wild, though the reintroduction program is focused on the Mexican condor.
It isn’t yet clear whether the reproduction will generate more condors. But Thompson said the hope is that the nesting for the wild population can now be expanded and the captive population can continue to work.
The chicks hatched on the 2,320-acre Camp Pendleton National Monument near Oceanside. The condors were raised by volunteers in a condor nursery in the Angeles National Forest in western Los Angeles County.
They were the product of artificial insemination to obtain sex chromosomes that biologists were unable to find by hand. It’s an area rich in condor nesting habitat but the reproductive season is short so the lay eggs from the nests during the week between March to early April.