Fire escape: how California’s wildfires forced this baby condor to fly

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On December 15th, as record-breaking wildfires raged through southern California’s Ventura County, wildlife biologists lost contact with California condor chick #871. The eight-month-old condor still hadn’t taken its first flight, and the fire was creeping down a ridge near the Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge towards its nest.

Joseph Brandt, a biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s California Condor Recovery Program, started to worry. The radio transmitter attached to the chick’s wing was silent, and the solar-powered camera monitoring its nest had gone dark in November, as the days got too short to keep it running. “The chick was at the verge of fledging with the fire breathing down the canyon and approaching the nest,” Brandt says. “While many chicks in the past have survived fires, it’s always a situation where you’re never sure.”

There are only 450 California condors in the world — and only 276 of them live in the wild. These endangered scavengers are the largest birds in North America, but by 1982, there were only 23 left. That’s mostly because of people, who fragmented the condor’s habitat, strung up powerlines for the condors to run into, and poisoned the birds through poisoned bait, as well as carcasses contaminated with lead ammunition. The population is slowly recovering thanks to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s intensive breeding program — but every new chick is precious.

    The Thomas Fire burning near condor chick #871’s nest in Los Padres National Forest on December 14, 2017.Photo by Nadya Seal Faith/Santa Barbara Zoo

Chick #871 hatched in the wild in April 2017, and the California Condor Recovery Program’s team attached a tiny radio transmitter to its wing. That way, they could track the bird by hiking to a spot nearby and using a device that picks up the tag’s signal. If the bird doesn’t move for more than 12 hours, then that signal speeds up — a sign that the bird is in trouble. “We call that a mortality switch,” Brandt says.

So as the fires were raging in mid-December, Nadya Seal Faith — a nest biologist with the Santa Barbara Zoo — tried to listen for the chick’s radio signal. But she couldn’t hear anything — not the regular ping, but also not the mortality signal. That, Brandt says, was a good sign. It meant the chick might have made it out of the nest to safety, out of range or where the radio signal was blocked. “That made us a little more optimistic,” he says.

    Condor chick #871 sunning itself after its close escape from the Thomas Fire.Photo by Stephanie Herrera/USFWS Volunteer

Over the next few weeks, there were hints that the baby condor might still be alive: the team spotted the chick’s parents flying in another part of the canyon that hadn’t been as badly burnt. And when Seal Faith went back on December 22nd, she managed to pick up the faint signal of the chick’s radio transmitter. Still, she tried not to get her hopes up. “Sometimes we’ve got a normal signal and it’s a dead bird that’s just been dragged around by scavenger,” Seal Faith says. “I’ve recovered several dead chicks, and you get to the point where you expect the worst, just so you’re not let down by it.”

Finally, on January 2nd, the fire department gave Seal Faith, Brandt, and the rest of their team permission to hike through the charred canyon. The fire had stopped at the edge of a creek, giving the landscape an eerie contrast. One side looked normal, though the air smelled like smoke; the other, where the nest had been, was bare and blackened by the fire. The team picked up the chick’s signal, and followed it. “We kept hiking along, and I spotted this little black thing bouncing around, and it was the chick!” Seal Faith says.

    Biologists with the US Fish and Wildlife Service hike into Devil’s Gate canyon in Los Padres National Forest to find condor chick #871.Photo by Stephanie Herrera/USFWS Volunteer

They watched as the chick preened its feathers, and opened its wings to warm in the sun. That’s when they noticed the damage, Brandt says. The tips of the chick’s wings were scorched and rough, damaged by the fire — but still functioning. The burn marks suggest that “the chick’s first flight was fleeing its nest to save its own life,” he says. When the chick took a massive leap to another rock, the team was relieved to see that its legs and wings weren’t broken. And on January 18th, they finally witnessed the baby condor fly. “It’s a good feeling to know she could survive on her own,” Seal Faith says. “Our little phoenix.”

Since 1992, only seven condors have died in wildfires, but over 70 were killed by lead poisoning, Brandt says. Lead ammunition is partially banned right now, and a full ban is planned to go into effect in 2019. But condors still eat it, and the FWS is trying to educate hunters and ranchers about its dangers.

For Brandt, who lives in Ventura County, the baby condor’s survival was the good news he needed after the Thomas Fire raged through his community, he says. “Finally, something that’s not just all devastation and destruction.”

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