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Pinnacles Condor Chick

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Date: May 12, 2009
Contact: Daniel George, 831 389 4486 x255
Contact: Mark Paxton, 831 801 4882

A pair of California condors recently discovered incubating an egg in the first San Benito County nest in more than 70 years are now caring for a wild hatched chick. The birds are nesting in a shallow cave high on a vertical cliff face located at the RS Bar Guest Ranch in Paicines, California. In an unprecedented opportunity, the owners of the RS Bar Guest Ranch are teaming up with Pinnacles Partnership to offer limited public viewing of the nest site.

Biologists Scott Scherbinski of the National Park Service and Joe Burnett of the Ventana Wildlife Society used ropes to descend to the nest on April 17. The male condor, identified as Condor 313, was present at the time, and appeared to be incubating the pair’s solitary egg. After briefly soaring from the nest a few times, the parent condor returned as the biologists swapped the pair’s egg for one that had been delivered the night before from the Los Angeles Zoo.

The new egg was “pipping,” or showing signs that the chick inside was about to emerge, and the young bird successfully hatched on Saturday, April 18, according to Daniel George, Condor Program Manager at Pinnacles National Monument.

Since it was not known if the pair’s original egg was viable, the trade enhanced the pair’s chances for breeding success. But there’s another compelling reason for the endeavor, according to George.

“The California Recovery Team has recommended transport of all wild laid eggs from the Central California flock to captive breeding centers in order to assess possible contamination of the eggs by DDE and PCBs,” said Burnett of Ventana Wildlife Society. “The study is being done to determine if these will prove to be influencing factors in the growth of this area’s condor population. All wild laid eggs will be replaced with viable eggs laid in captivity.” DDE is a derivative of the once-popular pesticide DDT, and both it and PCBs are persistent environmental toxins. [For more information on this issue, please contact Burnett, Wildlife Biologist with Ventana Wildlife Society at 831-455-9514.]

Members of the Condor Recovery Team were clearly elated by the apparent success of the exchange, and the behavior of the parent birds subsequent to the exchange. The male was observed returning to the egg before biologists had begun to leave the nest. “The operation went smoothly as planned,” George said. “When the adult male condor approached the new egg, the chick inside responded immediately with several low vocalizations. The male then began to brood the egg as his own.” Since then, both parents are showing normal foraging and brooding behavior. The recovered egg was examined at the Los Angeles Zoo and was found to be viable. It will be hatched in captivity, George said.

The mother bird, Condor 303, was not present during the exchange. She had been released from brief captivity earlier April 17. The bird was trapped a day prior for a routine health check and biologists determined high levels of lead in her blood. After treatment that evening and the next morning, she was released back into the wild. She was tracked using radio telemetry to the Big Sur coast where she fed, returning to the nest on Sunday where she was seen feeding the new chick. After she assumed nest tending, Condor 313 flew away from the nest to forage.

The female bird originally came from the Big Sur condor flock being monitored and managed by the Ventana Wildlife Society. She’s nearly six years old. The male bird was released as a 1 ½-year-old bird at Pinnacles in 2004. Condors are all assigned numerical names based on birth order.

Condors typically do not start breeding until about six years of age, and live approximately 60 years in the wild. Breeding pairs typically produce a single egg every two years. Average incubation time for a condor egg is 57 days, and the young bird typically will not leave the nest for five-and-a-half-to six months. This pair was discovered to be nesting in early March through radio telemetry and global positioning technology as well as direct observation.

Site Visits for Public Viewing

On April 22, 2009, Stan Pura—one of the owners of the RS Bar Guest Ranch—met with Mark Paxton and Paula Grace of Pinnacles Partnership to formalize an agreement to allow the public to visit the nest site, and observe the nest from a nearby ridge. Public viewing will be offered by reservation only. Provision can be made for overnight accommodations and a series of visitor events is planned. “The site is perfectly situated for viewing the activities of the parents and hatchling without impact to the condors,” said Paxton of Pinnacles Partnership, a nonprofit corporation which supports Pinnacles National Monument. “We regard this as a rare opportunity to view one of the rarest icons of North American wildlife.” The RS Bar Guest Ranch includes vast tracts of managed habitat, and opportunities for other wildlife viewing abound, Paxton said. The RS Bar Guest Ranch is a private lodge specializing in guided hunting and company retreats. More information concerning the services offered by the lodge is available at www.rsbarranch.com.

Reservations for public viewing of the nest site may only be made through Pinnacles Partnership. For information about arranging a visit to the nest site, contact Mark Paxton at 831-801-4882.

Photos of the April 17 site visit by the condor biologist are available from Paxton upon request. Beginning in May, pictures of and updates concerning site visits will be posted on Pinnacles Partnership’s website at www.pinnaclespartnership.org.

Condors and Pinnacles

California condors are the largest birds in North America, with wings spanning nine-and-a-half feet. They remain one of the rarest birds in the world, with a current world population of 320. Eighty-six birds are flying free in California. Pinnacles National Monument was selected as a California condor release area due to documented presence of condors in the area, good cliff nest sites and the large area of intact habitat. Five groups of condors have been released at Pinnacles, totaling 23 birds.

In addition to condor releases at several California locations, flocks are being established in the Grand Canyon area and Baja California. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Recovery Plan aims to eventually establish a population in California of 150 or more condors with at least 15 breeding pairs.

After more than a century of steady population decline, only 22 California condors remained by 1982, when the remaining wild birds were captured in an attempt to rescue the species from extinction.

As with Condor 303, the primary threat to California condor recovery is lead poisoning. Condors can inadvertently ingest lead bullet fragments from animal carcasses and gut piles left in the landscape. As a result, the California Legislature has outlawed use of lead ammunition for big game hunting and depredation throughout the condor’s range. Further information is available at www.dfg.ca.gov/wildlife/hunting/condor.

Recovery Partners

The effort to re-establish California condors at Pinnacles is a cooperative endeavor involving the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Ventana Wildlife Society, the Institute for Wildlife Studies, Pinnacles Partnership, and private entities such as the RS Bar Guest Ranch, in collaboration with the California Condor Recovery Team. The San Diego Wild Animal Park, Los Angeles Zoo, the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho, and the Oregon Zoo breed condors destined for wild release.

Further details on the Pinnacles National Monument program are available by visiting the website http://www.nps.gov/pinn/ or by calling Condor Program Manager Daniel George at at 831-389-4485 ext 255.

Information on Ventana Wildlife Society’s condor recovery efforts are available on the web at http://www.ventanaws.org/species_condors/ or call Executive Director Kelly Sorenson at (831) 455-9514.

Did You Know?

A Portrait of President Theodore Roosevelt

Pinnacles, Muir Woods, and the Grand Canyon were all set aside as national monuments in the span of seven days in January 1908 by Teddy Roosevelt.