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Flight of the Condors

By Adam Joseph | Photos by Stephanie Herrera, Ventana Wildlife Society

After working with condors for 25 years, Joe Burnett is still awestruck whenever he spies one of the large birds soaring the sky. He’s mesmerized by their agility and gracefulness—adults have wingspans of up to 10 feet and weigh up to 25 pounds.

Burnett, who is senior wildlife biologist for Ventana Wildlife Society’s (VWS’s) Condor Program, considers condors as nature’s recyclers, as they perform a filthy yet vital job for our ecosystem. His adoration for the endangered birds amplified the horror and helplessness he felt while watching the Dolan Fire on his home computer in Marina on August 18, 2020. (The Big Sur fire scorched 124,924 acres before containment, months later).

For over 15 hours, Burnett was glued to his monitor, watching the blaze from the Big Sur Condor Sanctuary’s two webcams. One captured the Sanctuary’s release site, and the other was directed onto four-month-year-old Iniko and her parents, frozen with fear in their nest in a redwood’s cavity. The nestling was not yet able to fly. The plumes of jet-black smoke made the night sky darker; condors aren’t nocturnal, so some of them were overrun without a chance to flee to safety.

Around 10:00 p.m., the burn closed in on Iniko’s nest before the webcam lost connection. By 3:00 a.m., the Sanctuary, along with tools, optical and tracking devices, and the VWS’s adjacent field cabin, were swallowed by flames. Burnett watched in dread as the fire crept toward condors perched nearby at a favorite roosting spot, just out of the webcam’s view, before that connection was lost.

The fire tore through several condor territories, trapping other chicks and their parents. In the first few days of the blaze, two chicks and three parents perished in the redwoods. The inferno killed 11 condors—10 percent of Central California’s condor population. (There are about 500 California condors worldwide).

Burnett and coworkers were cleared to visit the site two weeks later. “The canyon was unrecognizable,” says Burnett, “It looked like the surface of the moon.” The roosting spot was reduced to a still-smoldering stomp.

Immediately following that dismal day, Margaret and William R. Hearst III and Vinod Khosla were among the first to donate substantial gifts, starting fundraising efforts to rebuild the Sanctuary. Through its website and personal communications with donors, VWS raised $640,000. VWS executive director Kelly Sorenson says that construction will begin on a new sanctuary as soon as possible.

In the meantime, VWS’s current efforts are focused on condor safety. Little Iniko managed to survive, as did her mother. Another chick, Eva, also escaped. Both chicks were evacuated to the Los Angeles Zoo to be treated for minor burns are expected to be released next fall.

While the Dolan Fire devastated the California condor population, Burnett says that it pales in comparison to the ongoing fight against lead poisoning, a hidden-in-plainsight threat that could potentially wipe out the entire condor population. “Fires are anomalies, but [lead] has been a consistent menace,” he explains. “It’s the leading cause of death for [condors].”

Over the past couple of decades, an average of four California condors have died every year from lead poisoning. Most of the lead comes from ammunition used by hunters or ranchers shooting squirrels and other animals; the condors feed on the carcasses filled with fragmented lead bullets. But by the time the sick birds are spotted, it’s too late. “Our goal is establishing a self-sustaining condor population that was historically here,” Burnett says. “Everything is intact that was there from when the birds were thriving; the only difference is the presence of lead.”

California enacted legislation prohibiting lead ammunition for hunting, but some hunters are unaware of the law. Burnett says that VWS’s approach has been to educate without polarizing. The nonprofit also launched a program providing nonlead ammunition to hunters at no cost. “When we give out free ammunition, it gives us the opportunity to start a conversation,” says Burnett. The program only works if there’s full compliance, so it’s important to keep educating. “Fires are to be expected,” Burnett says. “The consistently high lead mortality is almost impossible to keep up with.”

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