Era of the Condor: A Species' Future in Recovery

The story of the California Condor Recovery Program is one of conservation's greatest success stories, an unprecedented large-scale collaborative effort to save a species from the very brink of extinction. Using technology like GPS and VHF tracking, livestreaming cameras, digital databases, and unique captive breeding and rehabilitation tools, the conservationists devoted to saving the California Condor have seen populations grow from just 22 surviving birds to over 500 within three decades.

In this two-part WILDLABS feature article, we'll take a look at the various technologies used to fight the greatest threat to wild condors, lead poisoning, explore the innovations that may change the way we study and understand this captivating species, and get to know the people and organizations working together to create a new future for the California Condor.

Header Photo by Stephanie Herrera, courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Date published: 2020/05/05

Era of the Condor:

A Species' Future in Recovery

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Photo by Stephanie Herrera

The California Condor's conservationists have reached an agreement: they’d like to create a world for condors in which technology doesn’t need to exist. As a tool to enhance our scientific knowledge of these birds, and to share their wonder with the world, they're incredibly enthusiastic, but when it comes to using technology as the species' lifeline? There's hope for that particular era to be nearing its end. 

It’s an ambitious goal, particularly for a multi-layered conservation effort that uses tracking devices and other high-tech tools in field monitoring, captive breeding, and release programs to great success, and on the surface, it perhaps seems like a strange message to share with a conservation tech community. But every time I sat down to talk with someone from the close-knit network of those working to protect North America’s largest bird from the extinction that once seemed imminent, they all reinforced the same shared goal.

Technology is not the end game - it’s the route we take to arrive there.

The long-term vision for the California Condor has always been, and should always be, to solve the troubles facing them so completely that they’ll be able to permanently say goodbye to GPS tags and the like as constant species-wide necessities, flying free and safe above the American West as they did for thousands of years before expansive human intervention became the last resort for this species. In this scenario, when condor researchers embrace new technology, it will be simply because they love condors and want to continue exploring their world. In the case of the condor, technology is not the end game - it's the route we take to arrive there. 

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Photo by Dave Meyer, Santa Barbara Zoo, courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

In a world where technology is always advancing and improving and outpacing itself, these conservationists offer a powerful message about the purpose of innovation. Marti Jenkins, a condor breeding specialist at the Oregon Zoo’s Jonsson Center for Wildlife Conservation, sums it up perfectly and selflessly when, in response to my question of how she’d like to see the zoo’s program grow over the coming decades, she says, “I’d like my specialty to be unnecessary. The true sign of success is for us to have no more work to do.”

She says it with a laugh, promising me that anyone who works with condors would happily tell me the same, that they wouldn't mind being out of this job if it meant condors no longer needed their help; after just a few weeks of speaking with the field biologists and experts who’ve devoted their lives to these majestic birds, I know she’s telling the truth. But there are still hurdles to overcome before the very technology used to save the condors can work itself toward a well-deserved retirement. 

"The true sign of success is for us to have no more work to do.”
Marti Jenkins

There’s something quite special about this conservation network. Comprising several organizations spread out across California and other Western states, including Arizona, Utah, and Oregon, there’s a tremendous spirit of collaboration and generosity between each program. Always willing to share data, resources, and tools across regions and programs, and often working together in the field, lab, or captive facilities, the people involved in condor recovery serve as a fine example of how all conservation programs are strengthened by cooperation, and how technology can bridge the gaps and unite our efforts.

Marti Jenkins once again captures this shared mood when she explains that in ten years, the second-best thing to seeing all condors living independently in the wild would be “knowing we’ve properly trained the next generation to pick up the torch and carry that same spirit of cooperation, that same passion.” The recovery program is well-prepared to meet the future, en route to establishing two geographically distinct self-sustaining populations through captive breeding and release, human behavior change campaigns to mitigate threats, and continuing wild population management and monitoring.

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Photo courtesy of Kelly Sorenson, VWS

To understand how this interwoven community came to exist and how technology played a role in these major program facets throughout the years, you must understand what makes the condor special, and just how close the species came to the edge of extinction. Though some may debate whether their colorful bald heads and reddish orange eyes are beautiful, there’s no question that their enormous 10 foot wingspan is awe-inspiring, particularly when they’re seen soaring up above looking every bit the prehistoric creature.

Beyond that, they’re intelligent, social, and happy to teach newly-released condors the ropes of living in the wild. They’ve successfully adapted to the environment since the Pleistocene era, out-surviving lost animals like the sabertooth cat and the woolly mammoth. They’re scavengers, often dining together in large groups. They were beloved by Native American tribes, some of whom called them “Thunderbirds”, and appeared in the stories of many tribes, including the Wiyot, who said the condor recreated mankind after humanity was destroyed by a flood.

Like humans, condors pass on knowledge to their young. Also like humans, they have long lifespans (around 50 to 60 years), during which they build loyal and long-lasting relationships - one couple (#167 King Pin and #190 Redwood Queen) featured on Ventana Wildlife Society’s Explore.org nest cams has been together for 14 years! But despite all these similarities, humans hold the sole responsibility for the condor’s decline. 

By 1987, there were no condors left in the wild.

By 1987, there were no condors left in the wild; all 22 surviving wild birds, the last representatives of their species, were rounded up and placed into a captive breeding program (at the time, a deeply controversial decision), with some questioning whether the ship had already sailed on the condors’ existence. Including the few condors born between the species' low point of 22 birds and the time when the last condor was relocated into captivity, there were only 27 birds total to carry on their ancient lineage. Hatching and raising condor chicks in captivity had never been done before, and the recovery team faced trial by fire. But by 1988, they'd found a successful strategy, and by the early 1990s, they began releasing captive-born condors back into the wild. From those 27 birds and incalculable hours of hard work, the California Condor Recovery Program evolved, with organizations like the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Santa Barbara Zoo, Ventana Wildlife Society, Los Angeles Zoo, San Diego Zoo, and Oregon Zoo joining together over the next 30+ years to bring wild condor populations back from the dead.

The results have been astounding: the latest data from USFWS shows 518 California Condors in North America, with 337 free-flying. (These statistics did not include the brand-new baby chick just hatched by King Pin and Redwood Queen in the wild a few weeks before this article’s publication.)

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Photo from the Ventana Wildlife Society Explore.org webcam, screencapped by Ellie Warren

“Condors are sturdy. They adapt. They don’t want to go extinct,” explains Kelly Sorenson, Executive Director of Ventana Wildlife Society. “They’re not doing anything wrong to cause their own extinction.” To Kelly, it’s clear that human-made crises require human solutions. In 1997, Kelly and VWS began releasing captive-bred birds into the wilds of California’s Central Coast. While those early days, piloted by a tiny staff of recent graduates suddenly and rapidly learning the ropes of conservation under strange, high-pressure circumstances with local and national eyes upon them, were filled with experimental experiences and mishaps (including the release of an inquisitive, too-familiar condor named Walter with a habit of visiting the program office, pulling shoelaces, and hopping on human staff member Walter’s desk), VWS’s successes grew thanks to a combination of trial and error, the condors’ own ability to adapt and survive, and technology’s ability to adapt as well. 

There’s no doubt that the biggest threat facing wild condors, and the major factor in their sharp decline, is lead poisoning.

There’s no doubt that the biggest threat facing wild condors, and the major factor in their sharp decline, is lead poisoning. The topic comes up over and over in our conversations, with each organization highlighting lead poisoning as the last and greatest challenge to overcome through technology and educating the public. According to Molly Astell from USFWS, lead poisoning accounts for 50% of condor mortality; the other 50% can occasionally include encounters with windmills and powerlines, but also includes a large numbers of mortalities that aren’t fully understood, but could potentially be caused by lead in some capacity.

Because condors are scavengers, carcasses contaminated by lead bullets pose a serious threat to populations. Technology has significantly improved the condors’ odds by making it far easier for field conservationists to intervene when lead has been ingested, and by helping us understand where condors travel and scavenge, with the goal of eventually preventing run-ins with lead before they can occur. 

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Left photo by Tia Wirtanen, courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Right photo by Gabe Brumagin, Great Basin Institute, courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

In addition to a low-tech but highly effective colored wing tag identification system, a large percentage of condors released or born into the wild (an estimated 90-95% according to USFWS) are fitted with solar-powered GPS units on their wings. At around 120 days old, once growth won't shift the placement, each chick receives their colored wing tag. GPS units are attached at around 18 months once they’ve reached adult size. Additionally, many condors now receive VHF units on their tails as well. Because condors live in rugged terrain with a poor connection to civilization, these two tracking strategies working in tandem can prevent disasters.

Since the recovery program’s early days of using GPS tracking, the technology has improved in leaps and bounds, now providing data every single minute versus the old standard of once per hour. As long as the condor is within range of a cellphone tower, this data can reach the program's computers with impressive regularity, a change which Kelly calls one of the program’s most significant technological improvements. In 2003, Kelly's VWS team lead the GPS charge as the first organization to begin tracking condors with these devices. Over nearly two decades, they've gathered massive quantities of data, GPS tracking has become a program-wide standard tool, and VHF transmitters have further expanded the data possibilities, picking up where GPS leaves off. When the condors aren’t within range of a cell tower, the VHF transmitters take over, sending back a specific mortality signal if the condor stops moving for 18 hours.

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Photo courtesy of Kelly Sorenson, VWS

"How can technology solve a human problem?”
Kelly Sorenson

Range and movement data also informs VWS’s non-lead ammunition program, allowing Kelly and his team to pinpoint the regions where they most need to focus their campaign. This is accomplished through CACO Central, a database built by volunteer Kim Huntington to analyze and coordinate large amounts of data from across the recovery program. Kim also built the corresponding website infrastructure that allows people in the areas highlighted by that data to get access to non-lead ammunition. To positively and permanently shift human behaviors that have so massively impacted slow-breeding condor populations, the combinations of GPS and VHF tracking, collaborative data analysis, and digital communication work together to answer Kelly’s biggest question - “how can technology solve a human problem?”

But in a program that has not yet moved beyond an individual management system versus a population management system, the most complete data sets possible are crucial, and the system still isn’t perfect. Nadya Seal Faith from the Santa Barbara Zoo emphasizes that "the biggest thing is understanding mortality" and being able to receive that all-important mortality signal. But not every bird has a VHF unit yet, battery life could be better (currently lasting around two years and requiring replacement in the field), and the VHF units drop when the birds’ tail feathers molt. "I would love to see a system where you never end up losing contact or data, where you don't sacrifice that." Whether that's through VHF/GPS integration or an enhanced GPS unit with satellite signal capabilities, it would be to the program's greatest benefit.

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Photo by Josh Felch, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Integrating GPS and VHF into one wing-borne device is likely the next technological hurdle for condor conservation technology. Nadya describes a combination VHF/GPS device for condors as “the big dream.” She thinks this innovation is within reach and hopes to see such integration available to the recovery program in the near future, and would also like to see the program’s collaborative databases become even more efficient and connected as the amount of available data grows, allowing the program to make the best use of their shared knowledge.

By combining VHF and GPS within the wing tagging system, they could use solar power for both (the GPS system is currently solar-powered), effectively solving the pesky battery life problem, and allowing for less human interaction with condors by reducing the need to maintain VHF equipment. But because these integrated devices would be on the condors' wings, weight and size becomes one of the challenges associated with developing and rolling out this kind of program update. "You want it to be less than 5% of body weight so it won’t impact behavior," she tells me, explaining further that it's vital for any device to not interfere with flight feathers, a significant consideration for any bird tracking projects. The integrated tags Nadya describes are definite possibilities for the recovery program; it's really just a matter of cost, time, and access to the right collaborations and opportunities. 

She also has an eye on the potential to track other animals within the condors' range using GPS units that can speak to each other, picking up signals from units on animals outside of cell tower range. Aside from picking up information from condors about other condors, this could allow these birds, with their large flight ranges, to gather data on tagged species with small, out-of-service ranges down on the ground. "The condor could pick up the data, offload that to a cell tower, and that data can now be read by whoever is trying to track that animal." The condor, then, could essentially help us research their own environment and cross-species interactions. "That technology is in the works, and they're trying to create a GPS network for all these units. To create an internet. You're creating an ecosystem, an ecosystem picture, and you're able to monitor ecosystem effects. I hope it happens!" 

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Photo by Anthony Prieto, courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Nadya is also excited about the potential for pure scientific research that could come from another use of the condors' GPS tags. She believes that using accelerometry to understand wild birds' behavior is the next frontier in condor research, having already been tested for applicability on condors living in flight pens. By comparing the accelerometer's data against condor behavior caught on camera within the flight pens, researchers could effectively code it for later analysis in the wild, allowing for an unprecedentedly rich and detailed store of behavioral knowledge gathered when birds cannot be observed. "We could use accelerometry data to define when a condor is laying down, when it's feeding, when it's copulating; very, very unique, individual behaviors.... GPS is a lot more these days. We use it [to know] when they're stationary and flying, but the potential for understanding behavior... there's just so much!"

The mere ability for condor conservationists to dream about bold new applications for tracking technology speaks to the incredible success of this program thus far; where once technology was implemented to prevent species-wide disaster, it can now represent a realm of hopeful possibilities for a thriving population in recovery. 

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Photo by Molly Astell, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

In the second installment of our California Condor feature, we'll look at how livestreaming cameras from Ventana Wildlife Society and The Cornell Lab have changed the way we research and understand this species, and how live cameras have tapped into the potential for inspiring viewers to protect the condor. We'll also discuss the unique technologies that captive breeding specialists like those at the Oregon Zoo use to successfully raise chicks and prepare them for life in the wild. And finally, we'll look toward the future of the recovery program and share how the conservation technology community can get involved in the recovery program.

Want to discuss your ideas for improving and innovating new condor conservation technology, get more resources from all the organizations discussed in this article, and collaborate with other WILDLABS community members to solve issues like lead poisoning? Visit our Condor Conservation thread in the WILDLABS forums.

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A huge thank you to all the organizations and people involved in both of our condor articles:

Kelly Sorenson, Ventana Wildlife Society

Marti Jenkins, Oregon Zoo

Molly Astell, U.S Fish and Wildlife Service

Nadya Seal Faith, MSc, Santa Barbara Zoo

Charles Eldermire, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

We'd also like to thank all the press officers at these organizations who made our interviews possible, and thank those who have shared their photos and resources with us!

We're sharing resources and inviting WILDLABS community members to collaborate on Condor conservation innovations in our group forum here. Get involved today!