Watch a California condor nest up close

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With wings spanning 9.5 feet and weighing up to 30 pounds, California condors are the largest vulture in North America and one of the largest flying birds in the world. By comparison, bald eagles weigh less than 10 pounds and have a wingspan of about 6.5 feet.

In 1987, California condors teetered on the brink of extinction. Only 27 were left on the planet; all were captured and housed in two captive breeding facilities in southern California.

Restoration

Today there are approximately 276 condors flying freely in the wild while another 200 remain in captive breeding programs. In addition to southern California, condors have been released in Arizona’s Grand Canyon and Mexico’s Baja peninsula.

Restoring large, slowly reproducing species requires time, patience, and persistence. Condors mate for life and lay one egg per clutch. Because the nesting cycle takes more than a year, condors do not breed annually.

Incubation takes 54 to 58 days, the chick remains in the nest for about six months, and then it requires another six to 12 months of parental care.

Condors nest under protective rocky ledges and in caves in dry mountainous areas. Both parents share incubation duties, and after hatching, the parents take turns finding food for the chick. They may fly as far as 150 miles from the nest to find carcasses of deer, cattle, pigs, sea lions, and whales.

Unfortunately, word descriptions of condor life are not terribly exciting. If only there was a way to actually see these impressive birds without traveling to California hoping to see one.

Good news

Last week, the U.S Fish & Wildlife Service and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology announced that a live camera at an active condor nest in the remote mountains of Ventura County, California, came online at www.cams.allaboutbirds.org.

In a statement, Joseph Brandt, supervisory wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge said, “We are excited to share with the world a view into a California Condor nest, and allow the public a glimpse into the day-to-day activities of these amazing birds. The live-streaming nest camera allows people from around the world to personally connect with these magnificent and endangered birds and learn what is needed to save them.”

Last year a live streaming video of a California condor chick hatching gained worldwide attention — nearly one million views from 150 countries. Many viewers checked in daily to learn what it takes to raise a condor.

In this year’s nest, an eight-year-old female condor and her mate, an 18-year old male, are raising their single chick, which turned 50 days old on May 31. (The nest is inside a high mountain cave, so the chick cannot always be seen.)

“Webcam viewers will see the rich social interactions of these intelligent birds, such as the two adults sharing parental duties, and their interactions with each other and the chick,” said Dr. Estelle Sandhaus, director of conservation and research at the Santa Barbara Zoo.

“Condor chicks actually engage in ‘play’ by pouncing on and grabbing feathers and sticks, for instance. It’s a thrill to watch the chick grow, learn, and play under the watchful eyes of its dedicated parents.”

Threats to condors

Though condors have few natural predators, lead poisoning is a major concern. Ingesting lead shot and bullet fragments from carrion can be deadly.

Another threat specific to condor nests is “micro trash” — small coin-sized items such as nuts, bolts, washers, wire, plastic, bottle caps, glass, and spent ammunition cartridges.

Condor parents collect these items and feed them to their chick. This can cause serious problems to the chick’s digestive system.

Biologists believe that condor parents mistake these items for bits of bone and shell that provide a source of calcium when fed to the chick.

Nest cameras help biologists monitor nests for evidence of lead poisoning and micro trash ingestion, so they can intervene on behalf of the chicks if needed. And amazingly, even curious naturalists can watch from anywhere in the world.

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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