VERMILION CLIFFS — The Peregrine Fund released seven of 11 California condors Saturday morning on top of Vermilion Cliffs. The remaining condors will be released at a later date.
A California condor soars after being released Saturday morning. (Photo by George Andrejko/Arizona Game and Fish Department)
It was the 10th release in northern Arizona of the continent’s largest bird since the project began in December 1996. With the release, the population of free-flying condors in Arizona increases to 32.
The release comes after a lead-poisoning scare. Peregrine Fund biologists captured 21 of the 25 birds in northern Arizona to monitor them for signs of lead exposure.
Early last week, two condors were seen feeding off coyote carcasses with substantial indication that they had been shot. Besides the two seen by biologists, radio tracking data indicated eight of the birds could have visited the carcasses. Most shot used to hunt coyotes is made of lead, which is toxic to wildlife.
"We’ve collected and tested the blood levels of the birds in question and have given all but one an initial clean bill of health," Peregrine Fund field coordinator Chris Parish said in a news release. "As a precaution, that bird will be held for a few more days of monitoring."
An interagency condor management team had been weighing the decision to release the seven new condors last weekend. The team was concerned that the required condor trapping activity would be complicated by the presence of seven additional birds.
In addition, if the new birds were trapped, there could be confidence problems in bonding with the wild flock or confuse the human aversion behaviors learned during their captive rearing.
"To release an additional seven naïve condors to the free-flying population at this time could have compromised our ability to capture the condors that may have consumed lead," Parish said, adding that the condor release moved ahead as schedule "since we were able to capture the birds at risk and determine through initial tests that they’re healthy …."
The danger of condors and other birds picking up lead will always continue.
"When it comes to the potential for birds of prey to pick up lead, we’re never really out of the woods," Parish said. "We just need to be vigilant in our monitoring program and continue to shed light on the risks that are affecting endangered species."
Joe Janish, Arizona Game and Fish information chief, urges hunters to use caution.
"This situation really enforces the message we’ve been repeating to hunters — game and gut piles should be retrieved and disposed of properly," Janish said in a news release. "It’s not a problem unique to condors. Any hawk, owl or eagle is susceptible to this type of lead exposure."
Ten of the 11 condors hatched at the Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey in 2001 with one hatching at the San Diego Zoo in 1999. Seven of the birds are male with four females.
All 11 arrived at the release site on Nov. 27 and have been held in a large flight pen so they could acclimate and socialize with the 25 free-flying condors that return to the release area, located at Vermilion Cliffs 27 miles west of Marble Canyon.
"The recovery of the California Condor continues to make steady progress," said Bill Burnham, president of the Peregrine Fund. "The keys to this progress are the habitat and community support provided in the Grand Canyon area."
Officials from other agencies were also pleased to see the California condor population in the Grand Canyon area increasing.
"We are excited to have these additional birds join the free-ranging condors in Arizona," said Duane Shroufe, Arizona Game and Fish Department director. "It’s another solid step toward recovery of this treasured element of Arizona’s wildlife heritage."
"The release of these condors clearly illustrates the value of protecting this spectacular Vermilion Cliffs National Monument and its objects of scientific interests," said Roger Taylor, manager for the Arizona Strip Bureau of Land Management. "We are pleased to host the return of these impressive birds to public lands."
At the time of release, Peregrine Fund officials say the birds would know how to fly, but are expected to stay close to the release site and explore their new home slowly.
"Recovery efforts for the California Condor in northern Arizona have been an overwhelming success in terms of numbers of birds surviving in the wild," said David Harlow, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Arizona field supervisor. "This success is due in large part to the hard work and cooperation of local supporters, the Peregrine Fund biologists, tribes, industry groups, and state and federal agencies."
Harlow said officials anxiously await the first successful breeding and egg hatching of condors in the wild since the early 1980s.
Several agencies have joined forces for the California condor effort. Along with the Peregrine Fund, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and Arizona Game and Fish, other partners include the National Park Service, Southern Utah’s Coalition of Resources and Economics along with several others.
"We are indeed fortunate to have conservation partners such as we have in this project," Burnham said. "We are also fortunate that Arizona citizens have chosen to provide Heritage funds to help defray our costs. It takes time, money, knowledge, perseverance and strong public support to restore species such as the condor."