Rare look inside the effort to save the endangered California Condor

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by Doug Petcash / KTVB

khou.com

Posted on July 10, 2014 at 7:48 AM

BOISE, Idaho -- The fate of an entire species hinges partly on the work being done in a secluded building on the back lot of the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise. It is the California Condor facility.

Here, scientists are working to increase the numbers of this large scavenger that has been on the endangered species list since 1967.

"So in this upper screen we have one of our oldest chicks," said condor project manager Marti Jenkins pointing at a video monitor. "It's 75 days old."

The little white fuzz ball about the size of a grapefruit in the corner of another video screen is the youngest.

"It's actually 13 days old."

They are two of the 17 California Condor chicks to hatch here this year.  

"That's a great year," said Jenkins with a big smile.

From the main, front room in the condor building Jenkins and her team keep an eye on all the new chicks through nest box cameras. That includes chick number 756 (They don't name them).

Jenkins says it is the 756th condor in the program that started in 1993. It's 45 days old. 

"These chicks at 45 days of age have never seen a human being ever," said Jenkins.

But day 45 is a big day for number 756. It's the day it will meet humans for the first time-- not a meeting it will enjoy. It's shot day. The little bird will be getting the West Nile Virus vaccine.

"We have a very effective vaccine that can protect these birds from that virus so that they don't become ill and die," said Jenkins.

Giving the vaccine requires a stealth operation. Like a S.W.A.T. team, Jenkins and her assistants, Gabe Border and Tai Carvalho, sneak silently down a darkened hallway, creep up the stairs and get ready to go in door number six. That's the door to the nest box where number 756 lives.    

When they speak, it's only in whispers. "Are you ready, Gabe?" Jenkins asks Border. And then they go in. 

The open door blocks the entrance the adult condor would use to come into the nest box. Carvalho immediately places a towel over the chick's head. If it can't see, it will be more relaxed.

"And it will keep them from looking at us and getting used to the idea of us being around," Jenkins explains.  

The chick fights anyway. It looks for someone to strike with its beak and wiggles around trying to get free.

"Well, he's a very strong chick and he was ready to defend himself if necessary," said Jenkins.  
A few seconds later, number 756 calms down. Jenkins injects the vaccine into the muscle of the chick's thigh, and the team leaves. Just like that the chick's ordeal, its first encounter with people, is over.

Total time in the nest box is a mere one minute and 20 seconds. The chick won't have human contact again until its next shot in 30 days. 

"You just want to get in and out as quickly as possible for their health and their well-being," said Jenkins.  

Their well-being is what the Peregrine Fund's Condor Restoration Project is all about.

With 73 California Condors, the World Center for Birds of Prey has the largest captive population of the birds in the world. There are only 437 on the planet.   

"They are a very important part of the landscape being a very large scavenger," said Jenkins. "They're the largest bird in North America."

The California Condor can grow to have a wingspan of about nine and a half feet.  But their size can't protect them from a tiny enemy-- fragments from lead bullets.

"The condor program begins and ends with lead," said Jenkins. 

In 1982, only 22 California Condors remained. Jenkins says the scavengers would eat lead bullet fragments in animals killed by hunters. It's still the biggest threat to the wild population in Arizona. 

"The condors come along and do their job and clean it up and they become poisoned from lead, and they can die if they're not captured and treated," explained Jenkins. 

Jenkins says they actually encourage hunting because the killed animals that are sometimes left behind provide food for the scavenging wild condors. However, those with the condor project urge hunters to switch to lead-free bullets. 

The work being done in Boise, and at other sites, has helped the population rebound, but the condor is still endangered.   

Jenkins says the chicks raised at the center will eventually be released into the wild in the Grand Canyon area, in California and in Baja Mexico, helping to bolster the population. 

She passionately believes this species she calls an icon of the west needs to survive.

"It's such a heroic tale of their struggle from near extinction to this point and beyond and this is a bird that lives for 50 years or more," said Jenkins, "So it's a story that not one of us will finish on our own. It takes a community."

RAW VIDEO: The stealthy operation of giving a condor its West Nile vaccine

 

Click the 'play' button in the video box above to view the video clip.

To view on the mobile app, go to the video tab.
 

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