Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. The California condor has long been an endangered species, but the big birds are making a comeback and this weekend a number of condors will be released into the wild in northern Arizona's Vermillion cliffs national monument. Here to tell us more is Jeff Humphrey of the U.S. fish and wildlife service, and Mike Robby of the Arizona game and fish department. Both to see you both here. Thank you for joining us. What is a California condor?
Jeff Humphrey: A huge bird, a little over nine foot wing span, about a 26 pound bird when it has belly full of food. It is called a California condor because of its original coining in the U.S., or North America. But when you look at it, you really look at it and you say the colors on that head during breeding season, this is a southwest bird. It has the pinks and the Vermilions and yellows that say this is a southwest bird.
Mike Rabe: I think they're pretty spectacular. They have a visage that only a mother could love. Like most condors, the colors are distinct because they don't have feathers on their head. Their habit is scavenging and it enables them to keep their head a lot cleaner by not having feathers on it.
Ted Simons: You mention scavenging; these are vultures by any other name.
Mike Rabe: You bet. That is how they make their living. They don't have the capability to kill large prey. They have to depend on prey that other things have killed or died in the environment and that's their food source.
Ted Simons: You have a couple of examples of how big a California Condor is these are from the wings?
Jeff Humphrey: These are primaries, wing feathers from the California condor so that you can get an idea. Even look at the size of a chickens feather compared to -- but, yes, this will give you an idea.
Ted Simons: How many of the birds are now in the wild today?
Jeff Humphrey: In Arizona, there are 79- well, there are 69 in the wild today. There are 79 in Arizona. Three of those will be among those that we hope to be releasing on Saturday.
Ted Simons: And Arizona, what, Utah, California, those areas, Mexico, that is kind of the breeding ground, area for condors?
Mike Rabe: Yep, there are 3 populations- original population where they were reduced to 22 birds in California. They have come back from that. Quite a few more birds in California. Small population, there are somewhere around 22, 23, something like that in Baja, California, Mexico, northern Arizona, southern Utah.
Ted Simons: We have video of some of the birds being released. Talk about the process. Where are these birds before they're released?
Jeff Humphrey: This cadre of birds from Boise, Idaho. Peregrine, center for birds of prey is where they were hatched and in captivity, and brought down to Arizona. Many of our birds are from that facility in Boise. Some of the original birds are from the Los Angeles zoo. We even have had some San Diego birds.
Ted Simons: How are they prepared for release here? If they have only known captivity, how do they know what to do?
Mike Rabe: They rely on being around other birds. They do the best preparation they can do in the zoo beforehand, but there is no substitute of being in the wild themselves.
Ted Simons: And as far as being in the wild now, are we seeing eggs being laid in the wild and all of that going on?
Jeff Humphrey: Four this year hatched in the wild this year. Which is a record for us. Previous years we have had three hatch. 22 hatched in Arizona so far in the program. I think 2003 was the first time we had reproduction. Condors were brought here in 1996. So, that really is pretty good turn-around for a bird that is only capable of reproducing every couple of years.
Ted Simons: Let's talk about why the birds- I read that there were like- I think you even mentioned 22, something like this, in the 1980s total. What happened to the things?
Mike Rabe: The population was falling. It began falling almost immediately as soon as the continent was colonized, American expansion. When it got down to 22 birds, people thought it was time to take drastic steps. All of those wild birds were captured and brought into a captive breeding program and from those 22 birds, that's where we have the three populations that are going today. We have raised birds in zoos, we have released birds, and now in Arizona, those birds are starting to reproduce and doing a pretty good job.
Ted Simons: Again, curious to me how birds that are raised around and in environments that just very different than the wild, how do they adapt? Have there been nonsuccesses?
Jeff Humphrey: There have been. Some of the birds, for example, when they are first released, aren't weary of coyotes. They will attempt to roost on the ground. The field crew will actually go out there and try to haze them, to move them back up into a tree, a ledge, some place where they would be safe from the ground predators. Initially in California, condors were getting into trouble running into power lines and being electrocuted. So, the zoo facility started to erect dummy power poles where they would get a shock if they lighted on a power pole when they were in the captive facility. So, they've learned. As a matter of fact, facility or Vermillion cliffs where birds were held has a dummy power pole used to re-enforce the behavior.
Mike Rabe: They learn behaviors from those around them. That has helped a lot. Early in the introductions, we had some problem birds. They were doing things like hanging around humans and caging food from them rather than looking for it themselves. But with hazing them, we have pretty much eliminated that kind of problem.
Ted Simons: This is a weird question. Are they friendly? Could they be too friendly at times? They look like big mean old birds out there, but, hey, it's an animal. You never know.
Mike Rabe: They have been too friendly in the past. But that is not a useful behavior for a bird that's going to be around predators and coyotes and things like that. For the most part, hazing has worked pretty well. They're actually very playful birds. Very intelligent birds. They learn from behaviors and so the hazing has worked pretty well.
Ted Simons: We have 400 some odd in the wilds now here throughout the southwest and Mexico. Now, three will be released on Saturday?
Mike Rabe: That's correct.
Ted Simons: Let's say I want to watch this. Can I go watch this?
Jeff Humphrey: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. It is spectacular, a great way to spend the day. Typically there will be 50 to 100 people that will arrive. Real condor field biologists will be there. They will have spotting scopes set up so that you will be able to view the pen from which they will be released. It is not a close view, but with the optics, bringing your binoculars and spotting scopes you can get a good view of a California condor. They will be about a half mile off and about 1,000 feet up. But it is a tremendous way to start a morning. The sun warming up the desert floor so that these birds can actually get loft and catch a thermal and you can sit out there and just wait, wait for that to happen. It is- there is a lot of camaraderie there, you get to ask questions one on one with biologists.
Mike Rabe: And even at that distance, they're pretty distinctive. There’s no other bird with a 9-foot wingspan.
Ted Simons: I would imagine so. Vermillion cliffs national monument. Where exactly?
Mike Rabe: Up near the Grand Canyon. If you have been up towards that, near marble canyon, Lees Ferry, up there. It’s those large cliffs that are right up there to the North.
Ted Simons: National public lands day. Talk to us about that.
Jeff Humphrey: A number of the places that we take for granted here particularly in the west are public lands. They're state lands, federal lands, and it is an opportunity to raise people's awareness of the federal lands to allow Americans to feel an identity to them and also to eventually become volunteers. To go out there and help with trail maintenance, clean up. Taking young- the next generation out into our public lands.
Ted Simons: Yeah. It sounds like it is going to be quite an experience Saturday. Congratulations on this and all successes dealing with these condors. Fantastic birds. Good to have you both here.
Mike Rabe: You bet.
Jeff Humphrey: Good to be here.