SAN FRANCISCO — A romance in the woods has produced an ugly yet wondrous holiday surprise for wildlife biologists in Big Sur: a young, spry, carcass-loving buzzard.
The fleshy vulture is the product of two California condors that sneaked off together, unbeknown to perpetually hovering scientists, and then, ahem, communed with nature.
It was only the third unobserved pairing of condors in the wild since 1997, when biologists began releasing the endangered birds in Big Sur.
“As biologists, we strive to know everything about the flock, but when we get a curveball like this, it’s a real pleasant surprise,” said Joe Burnett, senior wildlife biologist and Big Sur condor-project coordinator for the Ventana Wildlife Society. “It’s just a sign of how well the flock is doing, that they are flying out on their own, making nests and breeding on their own.”
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The 9-month-old bird is already full grown, which means the love birds rolled in the hay, made a nest, produced an egg, incubated it for 60 days and then raised the hatchling for six months without being detected by prying biologists. The two birds, known by the decidedly unpoetic names of 209 and 231, will now spend a year showing the apple of their beady eyes how to survive in the wild.
The breeding pair, also known as “Shadow” and “Wild 1,” apparently produced their mystery nipper in a remote portion of the Ventana Wilderness. Burnett said the area is virtually inaccessible on foot, which is why the tryst was never detected.
It turns out Shadow is a bit of a condor Casanova. Burnett said it is the third time he has produced a tot over the years. Condors generally mate once every other year.
“The male has this territory and has nested there in previous years,” Burnett said.
As if on cue, other males have begun their annual mating ritual, an elaborate display of flirtatious swaggering movements designed to drive females wild. It’s hard to miss, Burnett said, because the suitors have to swan around every day, sometimes for a month, while also fighting off other would-be Lotharios, before they get the girl.
“They make the boys pay their dues,” he said of female condors.
With a wingspan of 10 feet, the California condor is the largest North American land bird. The massive black vulture also is one of the world’s longest-living birds, with a life span in the wild of 35 to 40 years. Once widespread across North America, the condor has declined precipitously since the 19th century, mostly as a result of hunting and poisoning from the lead shot left in meat the birds scavenged.
The last 27 California condors left in the wild were captured and placed in a breeding program in 1987. The Big Sur flock is the result of releases from that program. The new condor tot was the fourth condor chick produced last year in the Big Sur area.
“It’s just confirmation that this species can make it, that the habitat is still there, that there still is room for condors in the ecosystem and in the landscape that we share with them,” Burnett said.
There are now 425 captive and wild California condors, 116 of which are living in the wilds of California. Condor populations are also found in Arizona, Utah and Baja California, Mexico.