By Madeline McCurry-Schmidt
On a recent Saturday night, I was sitting on my sofa, watching tv, when I got a call about condor sex.
“They are getting frisky right now,” said my friend, Corinne Ross.
Ross was perched on a rock, watching a pair of California condors get busy.
She described the how the male wooed the female.
“Condors don’t actually vocalize, so they use body language a lot,” Ross said.
The male raised his wings “like a really big shoulder shrug” and waddled toward the female. Oh, but he was rejected.
“The female was just like ‘not now dear,’” Ross said.
Ross isn’t some weird bird-sex voyeur. She’s an intern right now with the Fish and Wildlife Service Condor Recovery Program. She’s spent the last few months monitoring the wild condor population—a population that really needs some help.
I lived in California for 22 years, but I don’t think I ever saw a California condor. I think I would remember if I had. Condors are a strange combination of grand and grotesque. Their sleek black wings can span nine feet, but their heads look like someone glued a beak to rotten squash.
It makes sense that I never saw a condor in California—the birds are rare. As of December 2011, there were 390 known living condors in the U.S. And that’s a high number compared to what it used to be. Poaching, habitat destruction and the chemical DDT had reduced the population to just 22 condors in 1987.
Condor biology also made it hard for them to thrive in the disappearing wilderness. Ross explained that condor reproduction is “very, very slow.” A mating pair will raise one chick every two years. Condors can live for around 60 years, so that slow rate of reproduction could keep the population stable. But if an egg doesn’t hatch or if a chick dies, then time, and the population, is lost.
In 1987, the remaining 22 condors were rushed to San Diego Wild Animal Park and the Los Angeles Zoo. Biologists there studied condor reproduction and designed breeding programs. Eventually, a new generation of chicks was released into the wild, where they are watched closely by researchers like Ross.
That’s right. Studying sex saved the condors.
Ross said the condor population is bouncing back, but it’s far from stable. Researchers have seen many nests “fail” in recent years.
Sometimes chicks ingest trash and die. Other die from lead poisoning after eating contaminated meat.
Lead poisoning is another way that condor biology works against their survival. Condors are scavengers—they eat the remains of animals that have died from other causes. In an undisturbed wilderness, scavenging is fine. But in a wilderness with hunters that use lead bullets, scavenged carcasses are not always safe. Recent legislation has banned the use of lead ammunition for hunting in California, but Ross is not sure hunters have complied.
“There have been certain years when there have been five breeding pairs and none have made it,” said Ross.
The pressure to reproduce seems to have had an effect on condor behavior. Ross said she once spent a whole day watching one breeding pair mate before she realized that the pair was a father and his daughter. I was grossed out, but Ross explained:
“It’s such a small population right now that they don’t really have a choice,” she said.
Ross described what happens when the male’s display does impress the female. After the male shrugs his wings and waddles toward the female, he will climb on the female’s back. About 50 seconds later, the deed is done.
“You know it’s a successful if the male flaps his wings,” Ross said.
Studying condor mating behavior and sex helped the population bounce back, but it’s an ongoing project. Ross noted that one of the condors she watching was condor no. 21, one of the original 22 condors left on Earth before their rescue in 1987. He was eventually released back into the wild.
“He’s the oldest wild condor,” she said.
Out of nowhere, Ross cursed. Those frisky condors had disappeared behind a rock.
“Damn you, condors!”