The last few decades have not been kind to the California Condor—the large birds got dangerously close to extinction in 1987, due to lead poisoning from bullets left behind by deer hunters. But thanks to widespread reintroduction efforts in parts of California, Utah, and Arizona, this spring five condors were raised in the wild. And for the first time ever, one of them hatched on camera.
Hidden high in a cave of California’s Big Sur wilderness, Chick 787 hatched in April, under the watchful lens of a nest cam provided by the Ventana Wildlife Society, which began releasing condors in 1997. The cam also revealed an interesting twist—this chick had two moms. Researchers suspect that its dad, likely male 242, died from the same lead poisoning that’s been the downfall of so many other condors before the chick hatched. So another female condor stepped up to the parenting plate.
California Condor females “317” and “171” (it’s not clear who the biological mother is) are both widows. At 18 years old, 171 is the oldest female in central California’s flock. Her previous mate was also a victim of lead poisoning. After her (or perhaps 317’s) egg was laid and her most recent mate died, the second female swooped in to “assist for the greater good of the flock,” senior biologist at the Ventana Wildlife Society Joe Burnett wrote in a blog post titled: “Girl Power!”
This helping hand, or, well, wing, likely helped the chick survive, says Audubon Field Editor Kenn Kaufman. Condor chicks require the body heat of one parent as the other is off scavenging. In fact, chicks are so needy that condors sometimes raise their young in trios—two males and a female or vice versa.
In general, condors seem to be good at helping each other out. Older, unrelated birds often feed younger ones, Burnett says. “But this was quite different,” he says. “We have documented altruistic behaviors among this flock before, but never in a nesting situation [like this].” This is the first time Burnett has heard of two female condors, without a male, successfully raising a chick. He suspects 787 will fledge any day now.
While female co-parenting may be unique for California Condors, it does happen from time to time in other birds, says Kaufman. He points to a pair of Western Gull females in Southern California, which successfully raised a chick together and were documented in a 1977 Science paper. Laysan Albatross lady couples have also found success.
The Society’s time lapse video shows the chick go from egg to velvety six-week-old. It should have lasted longer, but the chick (accidentally?) bumped the camera from the nest in late May, and researchers couldn’t swing another trip up the 60-foot cliff face to right it.
Still, Burnett says, this imagery “is proof that the species is on the path to recovery.” In fact, lead bullets will be completely banned from California by the start of 2019. “We feel there is a great amount of hope for the condor,” he says. Perhaps, “they will once again be self-sustaining.”