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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Condors: Beware of Humans

Air Date: Week of

In preparation for an eventual planned release into the Grand Canyon, some California Condors are sent to learn to fear human contact for survival. This unique bird-of-prey training ground is run by an employee of the Los Angeles Zoo. Stephanie O'Neill reports from condor boot camp.


NUNLEY: Some time in early spring 9 California condors are scheduled to be released in the area around Arizona's Grand Canyon. It's a historic comeback for these magnificent creatures, and it marks another important step in a recovery effort that has helped the condors, once nearly extinct, reach a population of about 100 today. But many of the condors raised in captivity are far too comfortable with human beings and their gadgets for their own good. So in preparation for the Grand Canyon release, scientists are putting the condors through a rigorous training program, a sort of avian boot camp designed to teach the huge birds to stay away from human-made dangers. Stephanie O'Neill paid a visit to the Los Angeles Zoo, where the condors are going through their basic training.

WALLACE: Make sure that when you're going with a net, you two, that you're not swinging the net in a big arc. You're just flipping it over the bird. And be aware that when you come down that hill it can be real slippery. So we're expendable, the bird isn't. Okay.

O'NEILL: Mike Wallace heads the California Condor Recovery Team at the Los Angeles Zoo, and is one of the best friends the condors have. Although they'd never know it. The only time they have personal contact with him, he's leading a brigade of threatening humans who march into their enclosure, grab them in nets, and then carry them to darkened crates where they sit alone until nightfall.

WALLACE: And then they're unceremoniously allowed to go back into the cage so they stumble through the night, tripping through the water. They're not on their perches. They're distressed. So by the next morning they're all worried about that nightmare they had the day before. And that's what we're trying to achieve, is to have them be afraid of people in the wild, and react by flying to safety.

O'NEILL: Under normal circumstances the young birds spend several years shadowing the adult condors and learning to survive, in large part by staying away from humans. But the captive born birds didn't fare so well. Even though they were raised in isolation from people, their natural curiosity led them to hang around humans with deadly consequences.

WALLACE: Having no experienced adults to mimic, they began to choose the most efficient, the most prominent perches in the area, which are telephone or power poles.

O'NEILL: As the condors spent more time around the poles and lines, they became overly confident. For instance, Wallace says, they often would look over their shoulder at their playmates as they chased one another through the taut, unforgiving wires.

WALLACE: Or they may even jostle that other condor off the roost in the middle of the night. In the moonlit night they will fly and try to regain that perch again, and I'm sure it's difficult to see those lines. So we have lost 4 California condors to power line collisions, and that's what they're doing. They're hitting the power line, then they fall for 60 or 75 feet depending on the type of line to the ground, and if they're not flying they're falling just like we would be.

O'NEILL: Today the boot camp experience is changing that. A specially equipped power pole perch installed in their enclosure teaches the birds to stay away by emitting an electrical zap when they land on it.

WALLACE: Okay, I think we're all set. (Moves things around)

O'NEILL: And equally successful, it appears, are the periodic harassment episodes. On a recent afternoon, 9 young birds just weeks away from release experience their third run-in with invading humans.

WALLACE: Mike is going to walk on the hillside, and the birds will be alerted.

O'NEILL: The handlers walk quietly into the 100-foot-long condor enclosure that's littered with animal bones and small carcasses picked clean by the vultures. On one end a large fountain provides water for the birds. And throughout, craggy branch-like perches give them a place to rest. On the far side of the cage are the condors, each weighing about 20 pounds, with wing spans that will eventually stretch to 9 and a half feet. They watch the humans warily. Then they leap off their perches and begin flying every which way like giant, frightened parakeets cornered by a cat.

(A motor runs. Man: "They're coming right down." Noises.)

O'NEILL: But there's no escape from the humans, and one by one all the condors are captured.

WALLACE: Okay you guys, we're going to keep it down a little bit. We'll move out; I guess everything's all set. No injuries that you saw.

MAN: No.

WALLACE: Okay. Good. You could tell that it's not fun for them. They're very, very tough birds.

O'NEILL: Wallace says this Pavlovian behavior modification has so far proved 100% successful. The 17 boot camp graduates, the only California condors now in the wild, are still alive. And Wallace suspects they'll pass on their newfound fear of humans to their offspring. The next big test comes with the planned release of these 9 birds into the Grand Canyon area.

WALLACE: It's grand experiment, and it's going to be assessed on a yearly basis, a continual basis basically. And I think it'll be very spectacular for the tourist on the south rim, north rim, wherever they are, to have a California condor come into their afternoon and circle overhead. It will be one spectacular sight, and probably one of the most memorable experiences if it's a close encounter.

O'NEILL: But Mike Wallace, leader of the California Condor Recovery Team, hopes it won't be too close an encounter, as it's essential the vultures retain their boot camp lessons if these largest and rarest birds in North America are going to survive. For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Los Angeles.



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