Era of the Condor: A Species' Future in Recovery (Part 3)

In this three-part WILDLABS feature article series, we take a look at the various technologies used to fight the greatest threat to wild condors, lead poisoning, explore the innovations changing the ways 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.

Read the full series here on WILDLABS!

Part One

Part Two

Date published: 2020/07/02

Beyond the wilds of the American West, there is another sector of the California Condor Recovery Program making great use of cameras and other technologies to improve their work. When all the surviving condors were placed into captivity in the late 80s, attempts at breeding chicks and building a release program began immediately, its development a race against the clock. The species' survival hinged entirely on whether or not condors could successfully breed in captivity at all, or be released into the wild to rebuild the depleted populations, especially after being raised by humans.

"Condor conservation and captive breeding came from a place of desperation," says Marti Jenkins of the Oregon Zoo's Jonsson Center, the fourth zoo to join the captive breeding program in 2003. The tremendous effort paid off, with the recovery program's captive breeding plans now regarded as a model for protecting other species like the Snowy Plover (in fact, the condor program has begun collaborating with snowy plover conservationists at zoos and aquariums to support their strategies).

Just before all the surviving condors were relocated to captivity, eggs from wild condor pairs were brought to the Los Angeles Zoo and San Diego Wild Animal Park for the first attempts at incubating, hatching, and raising a condor chick in a controlled environment. In 1988, the first captive condor chick successfully hatched, proving that the strategies developed by these zoos could get the job done. By 1994, condors in captivity had reached a major milestone, having laid over 100 eggs.

Video Source: Oregon Zoo on Youtube

"We're good at finding things not designed for our use, and adapting it."
Marti Jenkins

While this early success showed promise for the future of zoos' captive breeding programs, this milestone only came about thanks to a massive campaign of trial, error, re-strategizing, and building on what worked and didn't work. "The incubation strategy was based on what we learned from poultry," says Marti. Originally from the Los Angeles Zoo's condor team in the 2000s, Marti helped lead the charge in developing and perfecting the best strategies for hatching and raising consistently healthy chicks. She describes the process of using technology in captive breeding as "finding things not designed for our use, and adapting it."

Video source: VWS on Youtube (In this 2007 video, a hatching condor egg is returned to a wild nest during an egg-switch operation.)

Because condors raise their chicks in remote caves, before the era of live streaming cameras, researchers could not be sure of what happened around the clock during incubation and the chick's childhood. As captive breeding took off, a risky but wildly rewarding idea made uncovering those details more essential than ever.

The method of "double-clutching" is often regarded as one of the major factors in the California Condor Recovery Program's success, as it bypassed the species' naturally slow breeding process. By removing one egg from nesting condor couples in order to trigger the production of a second egg, biologists could double the number of chicks hatched each breeding season. But this also meant that biologists needed to develop a consistent strategy for hatching many condor eggs themselves every year.

Video Source: Oregon Zoo on Youtube

"What seems very natural to the birds has a huge learning curve for us. They instinctively know when to turn the egg, how to regulate the temperature, all that," explains Marti. But what humans lack in that natural instict, we can supplement with the right data and technology. "We need to use all these tools and strategies to know exactly how much this egg should weigh at this stage and what those fluctuations look like over time, or the precise humidity and temperature, or how many times to move it. You learn to recognize the natural patterns through data."

Beginning by comparing a common chicken's weight and egg cycle to the much, much larger condor's, researchers like Marti were able to extrapolate the right techniques and time tables for hatching the healthiest condor chicks. "Technology has only made this easier over time. We've got it down to a science after all these years, but the technology can only make us more precise and efficient. And since we're in a controlled environment, it helps us get really rich scientific data that might be harder to get in the wild. Some things are just great to know for the sake of science, even if we've peaked the hatchibility of these eggs. You still have a natural curiosity for what's going on in there and why!"

It's this natural curiosity that leads to her next request from the conservation tech community: "We'd like to have a replica condor egg fitted with modern, advanced sensors to find out exactly what's happening under there and how close our data is, in terms of movement, humidity, temperature variables, all of that. Something that sends that data back to us in real-time, or that we can download when we collect it. Smaller versions are out there and used for other bird species, so somebody will know how to make a specialized condor version. That's the kind of technology that falls under the umbrella of 'It would be nice to have.' It may not necessarily increase hatchability at this point (if we'd had it years ago, absolutely!), but it would be interesting to know for science's sake!"

"That's the kind of technology that falls under the umbrella of 'It would be nice to have.' "
Marti Jenkins

As they're transporting eggs in modified biomedical equipment, using LED lights to "candle" eggs for development checks without overheating the delicate membrane, or regulating incubator parameters using miniaturized smart thermometer technology similar to what you'd find in your own home, Marti and other captive breeding specialists have made the most of scaling up or down common technologies by combining trial with creativity.

For Marti, the best technology consists of tools that take the guesswork and stress out of what is quite literally a life-or-death situation. "We've got apps now to check in on everything through our phones. Obviously you get better temperature control and all that important stuff in the incubators, but you can also get precise information on exactly when an egg was laid, and when it starts to hatch, by monitoring through the camera, which helps match up all that data on a really, really detailed level."

Video Source: Oregon Zoo on Youtube

In the case of captive chicks being raised by their parents in nest boxes, the biologists make sure everything goes smoothly, only intervening when necessary thanks to the cameras, which meet the same need as nest cams in the wild. Though the early camera set-ups were quite basic and low-quality, they've now got remote access, night vision, multiple angles, and all the other tricked-out capabilities you'd need and expect. And unlike their wild counterparts, these cameras don't need to worry about the complexities that come with broadcasting from places without power, allowing for features like night vision since they're not reliant on solar panels.

While zoos' camera systems were largely designed for scientific and practical purposes, some use them for conservation outreach as well. The San Diego Zoo has its own condor chick cam, and the Los Angeles Zoo, which keeps its condor flight pen off-exhibit to the public, welcomes guests to The California Condor Rescue Zone, a visitor center where they can manually switch between multiple camera feeds, learn about the history of the program, and explore video archives.

Photo from Ellie Warren's personal collection, taken at the Santa Barbara Zoo

One of the biggest hurdles in preparing captive-bred and rehabilitated condors for release into the wild is preventing them from habituating to humans, which could severely endanger them. In addition to potentially leading them to areas where they're more likely to encounter lead, associating with humans could also lead them to interactions with powerlines, cars, and even human-wildlife conflict. 

"We don't really interact with the chicks any more in captivity if we don't have to," says Marti. "Ideally, they should know nothing about us. Back in the 90s, maybe we did it a bit too much, and we've leaned away from it these days. Now technology helps us minimize any contact, so they don't associate humans with socialization or food or comfort. We feel very attached to the chicks, but through a screen or through a peephole."

Video Source: Oregon Zoo on Youtube

The condors need no help socializing; Marti explains that once they are in flight pens, the birds do an excellent job of teaching each other the ropes and taking newcomers under their (very large) wings. "They're so social. Some people don't expect them to be such social birds, but they are, and they're so intuitive, too. They've got their own society, their own rules, and they're good at learning by example. Even once they're released into the wild, the older condors sort of mentor the new ones, and teach them how to survive. They don't need humans to show them what being a condor is all about."

For example, condors in the flight pens are taught through mild shock aversion techniques to avoid landing on telephone poles, saving many condors' lives. This fairly low-tech solution has become standard throughout condor release training programs, effectively addressing one of the major threats against the species besides lead poisoning. 

Photo courtesy of VWS and Explore.org

Those captive-taught condors now seem to be demonstrating to wild-born condors the need to avoid telephone poles, as well. "They do seem to teach each other, and there's generational wisdom being passed down, probably through the condors observing each other." As Marti describes it, condor society functions like a hierarchy, and peer pressure is a lifesaver for young birds. "If the biggest, coolest elder condor always avoids sitting on these poles, the younger ones will follow that cue. They think, that's a nice perch, but I don't want to sit there if no one else wants to. They know something's up. So because of this very simple technology, we can basically train the condors to train each other long-term."

Once the chicks are old enough to enter a flight pen, cameras are center-stage for researchers once again, helping to monitor behavior, socialization, and health. Unlike in the field, maintaining cameras in captivity is quite simple; instead, other surprisingly basic technologies pose a bigger challenge. It's in the smaller details where Marti spots the opportunity for technological improvement. 

As Marti explains, "The condors are incredibly good at dismantling things like spring scales. Some birds completely rip them apart. They're so curious and smart, and that means they're incredibly adept at disassembling things. So you don't necessarily want to offer them an expensive smart scale to take apart!" Instead, she has a solution in mind that mirrors field biologists' dreams of integrating wing tags with other technologies more easily. 

"We might not have the resources or know where to look, but someone out there knows how to do that!"
Marti Jenkins

"Right now, the scales are monitored by a camera so we can catch that data on the screen. If we had some kind of integrated technology that can automatically record their weight when they land on the scale, and maybe that interacts with their tag to identify the bird at the same time, that's something that could streamline the process and improve data." Offering this up as a challenge to the conservation tech community, Marti says, "That's an example of how something that seems really small and doable, and probably very easy and possible for someone out there to make or find, could make us even more efficient. That solution must be out there somewhere! We might not have the resources or know where to look, but someone out there knows how to do that!" 

Whether it's through finding the right everyday or specialized technologies to improve captive breeding programs, strengthening wild tracking efforts, building databases, or creating better livestreaming networks, the condor conservation community welcomes the expertise of the tech world. "It might seem like a small need overall, but it's all important, and if the conservation technology community is keen and willing, there are always opportunities to collaborate!" 

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

It has taken decades of hard work and dedication to pull condors back from the brink of extinction. 22 surviving birds in captivity have become over 500, with over 300 of those condors flying free in wild, constantly growing populations throughout Central and Southern California, Utah, Arizona, and Baja, Mexico. Most significantly, there are now more wild condors than captive condors, a hopeful sign for their future and a reflection of how far this collaborative program has progressed. The game is not won yet; even as conservationists work to create fully self-sustaining wild populations and address lead poisoning, other threats like microtrash pollution and chemicals like rodenticide rear their heads. But this innovative and interconnected group of conservationists will surely rise to any occasion, and the world they've imagined in which technology is no longer necessary to protect condors is finally, if not within easy reach, within sight.

Photo courtesy of VWS and Explore.org

Looking back on the early days of the program, even through all the long hours, the uncertainty, and in the face of the public's doubt, Kelly Sorenson of Ventana Wildlife Society identifies the moment he knew that the California Condors would not merely survive, but thrive above the wild West again. "Early on, around 1998, we were in the fragile days of the program. We were even more thinly staffed, spread thin, this young team of pretty green conservationists working hard, long hours to prove themselves. It was so important that every single condor did well. We couldn't afford any slip-ups or disasters, and we were stressed and worried that they needed us all the time. Nobody wanted to let them down."

"We can do this together. I believed it then, and it's still true now."
Kelly Sorenson

"So finally, one day, I took a day off. It's a beautiful day, I'm having the best day ever just relaxing outside in nature. And, in a very Californian detail of this story, I had an outdoor bathtub at my house. Five minutes after I get in the bath, two condors fly overhead. There were so few of them at that time. You never saw them! This was at the edge of the extent of their entire range. And these two condors that I worked with and helped to release just happened to soar right over my head. It blew my mind. That really hit me, to see them soaring above me, after all that hard work, like they don't have a worry in the world... It doesn't get better than that. And you don't get a better sign that you're doing something right, and meaningful, than that. It was like they found me. They stopped by to say hello, and show me, hey, look! We're doing alright! We can thrive out here again. We're going to make it, we've got a future. We can do this together. I believed it then, and it's still true now."

It has been 22 years since Kelly saw those condors fly overhead - one year for each of the 22 birds who built the California Condor Recovery Program alongside their committed conservationist partners. And in those two decades, we've all come to believe in a brighter future for the California Condor, too. What will the era of the condor look like many more decades from now? We don't have a precise answer to give you, as that future is still being created right now, both by the people and organizations featured in this series, and by those who will get involved after learning about this magnificent species.

If you've enjoyed our Era of the Condor series and want to contribute to the California Condor Recovery Program's success, join us on WILDLABS to discuss opportunities to collaborate, and share tech expertise to meet the challenges still facing these birds in the wild. We hope you'll add your voice to the conversation and play a role in this new decade's chapter of the California Condor story.

Photo courtesy of VWS and Explore.org

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

Kelly SorensonVentana 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!

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About the Author

Ellie and Condor

WILDLABS writer Ellie Warren is a lifelong follower of the California Condor Recovery Program. Originally from Southern California, home of the condors, she first learned about the conservation efforts for this species in the 1990s at the San Diego Zoo, where she chose a plush condor chick as a souvenir and never looked back! You can find Ellie on Twitter, and email her at [email protected] with pitches for future feature articles, case studies, and other content ideas.

Header photo taken by Ellie Warren at the San Diego Zoo

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Interested in collaborating with the organizations involved in condor conservation or lending your tech expertise to them? Share your ideas and resources here on WILDLABS. This thread will be shared with our friends in the Condor Recovery Program, and we hope it will serve as an ongoing place to connect the WILDLABS community with condor conservationists!

Our group forum on WiLDLABS is your place to join an ongoing discussion on condor conservation technology!