By Terra Bransfield | Hello, my name is Terra. I am a freshman in high school and am 14 years old. I am a very outdoors person and enjoy working with animals. Along with animals, I take joy in participating in activities such as singing in my high school choir, dancing and playing the piano. But let me tell you about my meeting with condors.
As a lover of animals, I was a bit jealous when my brother got invited to work with California condors a few years ago and I wasn’t. However, just this past summer, my father, Ray, informed me there was a chance that I could come along with him to one of these bird checkups.
My dad, Ray, spends most of the time sitting in a chair and talking to people on the phone all day. However, he does know a few real biologists. I was so excited that I could go; I mean how many people can say they’ve held a real fully grown condor? This gal!!
Photo above: The condor cage and lab. By Ray Bransfield.
My dad and I went to the headquarters of Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge, which is responsible for taking care of condors in southern California, and then we hit the road with a few workers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. We drove up a dirt road through the Los Padres National Forest to the refuge. I felt like I was on the yellow brick road on the way to meet the all mighty Oz! We stopped at a little house to pick up a few people to help on our journey. By the time we reached our destination, there were about ten of us, including a few volunteers with the condor program and a veterinarian from the San Diego Zoo.
Our destination was a two-story building with a huge flight cage connected to it. The first thing I noticed when we arrived were the many large black condors everywhere. They were in the trees around the building, on the flight cage, and inside the cage.
I was given a quick tour of the building. Ground floor consisted of a large space to set up necessary equipment and a scale by the door for weighing the condors. Up a flight of stairs was a large one-way window to look out and watch the birds in the large cage.
They have a tricky little way of getting the birds into the flight cage without letting the captives escape. Along the front of the flight cage is a much smaller enclosure with a few animal carcasses to lure the birds in. Once inside the small cage, the biologists would then open a door that allows the bird to enter the flight cage without escaping the trap.
Handling the birds can be a tricky task because they have strong beaks and claws, so getting them in hand to start testing is interesting. Along the wall with the one-way window are a few single bird rooms. To get a bird in there, they open an outer door with a chain and someone in the large flight cage shoos a condor into it; the person holding the chain closes the door quickly so the bird doesn’t fly out again.
It was interesting to watch the birds as they tried to get away from the people trying to shoo it into one of the little bird rooms. The people would poke them with a stick or broom, and the birds would grip onto the side of the flight cage with their feet and cling on for dear life. You could see them slowly loosening their grip when they got tired, but then they would fly around and latch on somewhere else. It was quite a show!
When the birds were in the little enclosure, the biologist would open the door that leads into the building and put a large net over the bird, then turn it so he or she could grab the condor by its tail feathers. They did this so the condors couldn’t peck at you with its sharp beak. Some of the birds threw up while in the cage (ew); this was the bird’s way of relieving stress. I feel like if I threw up that would only stress me out more, but maybe that’s just me.
I needed to learn how to hold the birds properly before I could hold one myself, so I watched the first couple of times and took pictures. I observed how two people had to sit shoulder to shoulder and someone would place the birds in their laps. The person with bigger hands was more likely to get the head because they could get a firmer grip on the beak. The beak is the real business end of a condor; that beak can rip through the hide of a dead cow, so a person’s skin would easily be torn! The other person would grab the talons, one foot in each hand so you wouldn’t hurt the bird’s legs.
The main point of the capturing and testing of these birds was to check that they still had their tracking devices, to weigh them, and to make sure they didn’t have a deadly amount of lead in them.
Checking to make sure the tracker was still on was simple. Someone would ruffle the feathers a little to see if they could feel/see a black tracker. If it was missing or broken, they would simply replace it.
To check the blood lead content, the people holding the condor would turn it to expose the vein inside of the leg. Another person would clean the leg with an alcohol wipe and take multiple blood samples by inserting a small needle into the vein.
When I got to hold a condor, I was told it had been the last one wild before they were all captured in 1987. It was number AC-9. My dad really didn’t do any of the work, but he told me that he was awed to be able to touch AC-9, a bird that was flying free in 1987 and that has played an important role in teaching captive-bred condors to learn to live in the wild again! I held the feet of the condor because my hands would never be able to go around a large beak, especially if the bird started getting frustrated and started snapping. Nuh uh, that’d be ugly.
While holding the bird, one of the biologists showed me an oil gland underneath all the feathers. The birds peck at it and spread the oil along its feathers to keep them waterproof while flying in rain or to zip their feathers back up to improve flying in general. Also, I noticed that the feet of the birds had an awful lot of dry green stuff peeling off their legs. I soon learnt that that was urine. The birds can’t easily spread their legs to pee so they just let it out where-/when-ever and, to no surprise, most of it lands on their legs. So, for the rest of the day, my hands smelt like condor pee. Yes, I did wash my hands! Many times.
To weigh the bird, one of the two people holding the bird would pick it up like a baby and step on the scale – without letting go of the head. To get the bird’s weight, they would subtract the person’s weight from the weight of the person holding the bird. On average, condors should weigh between 18-31 pounds (8-14 kg). We weigh them to get an overall indication of their health; if the weight was good, they were probably getting enough food. If they are underweight we might take them to the doctors (depending on how much underweight they are).
Probably the most exciting part of the whole process was the re-releasing of the birds. Most of the birds at first would just sit there like a lost puppy unsure of what to do. Then realizing it was free to leave, it would stretch out its wings and run like a plane down the runway. It would start furiously flapping its wings and just barely make it over the fence surrounding the building. Once high up enough, it would stop flapping and soar on the wind. Gosh, it’s a gorgeous sight!
Besides the fact that I held bird-urine-covered condor legs (it was totally worth it though!), I had a great time learning about condors and how to make sure they’re livin’ happy and healthy! If you get a chance to work with condors, I say go for it!
Terra lives in Ventura with her parents, who both work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.