Santa Barbara Zoo - Condors Condor Country

AC8, AC9 and the Last Days of Wild California Condors

By Jan Hamber, Condor Biologist at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, and Bronwyn Davey

Wild CondorOn a spring day in May 1982, in a remote cave atop a cliff in the Sespe Condor Sanctuary, southern California, a tiny pink California condor chick pecked its way out of its hard egg shell that had protected it for nearly two months. He was greeted by his mother, a giant black bird, with a mottled orange head and a wing span of over nine feet, who gently stroked him with her powerful beak and nestled him close under her warm body.

This same scene had been repeated for tens of thousands of years. However, this scene was about to end. The mother and chick were part of a species that without drastic measures would cease to exist forever. The California condor population had experienced significant declines for decades and less than 26 California condors remained in the world.

Neither the chick nor its mother was aware of how significant this event was for their species or how critical a part each would play in efforts to save their kind from extinction. The chick, later named Xolxol (ho-ho), became the original member of the captive breeding program. This event marked the beginning of the California Condor Recovery Program.

The mother, later known as AC8 (Adult Condor 8), was the last free flying wild-born female California condor captured for the recovery program. Later, she was the first wild-born condor to be released back into the wild – the first time that a wild-born California condor had flown free for almost 13 years. Two years later, AC9, the last wild California condor captured for the recovery program, was released after 15 years in captivity. AC9 was AC8’s last mate in the wild.

This is their story, and that of their peers, the last wild California condors.

After the capture of Xolxol, AC8 continued to nest successfully in the wild, with her unnamed partner (known as #3 by modern researchers). In 1983 and 1984 she laid several eggs, which were removed and now form a significant part of the captive breeding program at San Diego Wild Animal Park and Los Angeles Zoo.

By late 1984 the numbers of wild California condors had dropped by nearly half. AC8, together with her partner, was one of only five actively breeding pairs in a total population of 15 wild birds. Tragically, in November 1984, AC8’s partner disappeared and never returned.

Although this was a serious setback for the condor program, biologists were still optimistic that California condors from the captive breeding program could still be released back into the wild where a wild condor population existed. The other wild pairs were breeding successfully and 14 eggs and chicks had already been produced to form the nucleus of the captive breeding population.

 

Jan Hamber, a condor biologist working on the program at the time, recalls “all we needed was just one more successful breeding season and 1986 would then have been the year that young birds could be released from the captive group and used to augment the wild population.”

It appeared that the recovery plan was working and success was just around the corner. But it was not to be. As the biologists fanned out into the nesting areas in late January 1985, reports came filtering back that either one or both members of pairs were missing from the breeding territories. By April, when the missing mate of a new pair was found dead from lead poisoning on a ranch in the Sierra, it was clear that some disaster had struck. Six condors were missing from the population.

Soaring Condor - Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

 

Only nine birds survived, and worse yet, only one pair remained to breed: the Santa Barbara pair known as AC2 and AC3.

The bottom had dropped out of the Recovery Program’s plans which led to a phase of acrimonious debate as to whether to take all the remaining nine birds into captivity or leave some out to keep the wild population going. The battle raged during the remainder of 1985 and three birds were removed during the summer and fall until only six were left, two females: AC3 and AC8 and the rest males: AC2, AC5, AC6, and IC9 (immature AC9).

Then in mid-December 1985 disaster struck again. It was reported that AC3 was down on Hudson Ranch. It was obvious that she was sick. She was finally captured on January 3, 1986. Despite constant care and treatment at San Diego Zoo, AC3 died January 18, 1986 – another victim of lead poisoning.

Now no breeding pairs remained in the wild and only one female, AC8, was left with four males. The remaining adult males, whose partners had also disappeared, desperately tried to court AC8. However, she was uninterested and instead chose AC9, a young male just coming into adulthood.

AC8’s breeding experience over AC9’s was obvious. She accepted his advances and immediately began inspecting various caves for a suitable nest site, with AC9 in pursuit. She eventually found one and together with AC9 produced two eggs. Their first egg was found to be so thin-shelled that it was crushed - a casualty of DDT. The second egg survived and was taken to the San Diego Wild Animal Park to be incubated and hatched.

With only five remaining wild birds, only one breeding pair and the ever-present threat of potential death, two more condors were captured. First AC6 on April 20, 1986, and then AC8, on June 5, 1986. Now only AC2, AC5 and AC9, all males, remained.

Eventually the call came to take into captivity all the remaining three condors. AC2 was the first to go on December 13,1986.

Condor biologist Jan Hamber watched as AC2 was captured, a male that she had watched, along with his now dead partner AC3, for 11 years at 11 nest sites.

Moonlight Condor - Photo by Sheri Horiszny

AC5 was next and was caught under a cannon net on February 27, 1987, in the late afternoon. For trapper, Pete Bloom, it was a moment never to be forgotten. As he placed AC5 in the sky kennel for the trip to the zoo, he noticed AC9 watching him. The last wild California condor in the world was perched in a large oak tree above the trap site, his body silhouetted against the setting sun.

And then came the Easter Sunday when AC9 was captured. For the first time in tens of thousands of years there were no California condors soaring in the sunny skies of southern California. All 27 living birds were in captivity. At the time, it seemed that it was the end of the road for the wild population. All those involved in the program felt a pervasive sadness. Would these majestic birds of the sky ever soar again?

After their capture, AC8 and AC9 were separated and partnered with other condors to maximize the genetic diversity within the captive population. Both AC8 (known as #12) and AC9 (known as #21) are parents and grandparents to many of the young condors which have been released into the wild.

POSTSCRIPT: AC9

This article was originally written in 2002 in advance of the rerelease of AC9 into the wild. At that time, AC9 was over twenty years old and his genetics were well represented in the captive breeding program.

It was hoped that with the release of original wild birds they would act as mentors for the captive-bred, free-flying condors and to give them an opportunity to live out the rest of their lives flying free. The interaction of the captive-bred condors with original wild-birds was hoped may provide the young birds with additional skills for survival in the wild.

Three juvenile condors, approximately 12 months old, were also released with AC9. One of these juveniles was from an egg laid in the wild the previous year in the Santa Barbara back country. This chick was raised by AC9 in the Los Angeles Zoo.

The juveniles spent several months in a flight pen at Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge with AC9 and other adult birds. The young condors were placed into the flight pen with the adult birds in order to gain experience competing for food and to form social bonds prior to release. While in the flight pen, the birds underwent power pole aversion training to help them avoid deadly encounters with power poles once released.

AC9 and the younger birds were transported to a holding facility at the Sespe Condor Sanctuary about a week before the release to give them time to acclimate themselves to their new surroundings. On May 1, 2002, AC9 returned to the wild.

He returned to his previous territory and has since paired with #192, who had been hatched in the breeding facility at the Los Angeles Zoo in May 1998 and released into the wild in January 1999. They have produced two wild-born chicks who are now flying in the wild. They have an active nest again this year.

AC8 and AC9 are each great-grandparents of Santa Barbara Zoo condor #440.

POSTSCRIPT: AC8

AC8 was one of the oldest condors in the world when she was rereleased into the wild in April 2000. Her exact age was unknown; however, she was at least 26 years of age, but probably much older (ie. over 40). She had not successfully bred in captivity since 1995 and was believed to be past her breeding age.

On February 13, 2003, while sitting on a tree on Tejon Ranch, AC8 was killed by gunshot. Her remains are on display at the Tribal Council Hall of the Santa Ynez Band of the Chumash Indians.

She is remembered as a genetic “founder bird,” having produced 16 offspring and is a great-grandparent of all four Santa Barbara Zoo condors: three with #3 (her first wild mate), and one (#440) with AC9 (#21).

Photo credits: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Sheri Horiszny