She has been called the mother of all condors.
All of the condor chicks bred, hatched and raised — 153 of them — at the World Center for Birds of Prey, a research and education center south of Boise, since 2008 have been under the watchful eye of Marti Jenkins.
“I’m obsessed. I lay in bed and think about them. I have an app on my phone that lets me look at the monitors and all the cameras, so sometimes I can lay in bed watching chicks hatch in the middle of the night.”
Jenkins directs The Peregrine Fund’s California condor propagation program. Worldwide, The Peregrine Fund supports and funds work to restore rare raptor species through captive breeding and release. She leads a staff of three biologists and one exterminator — that’s Bunny, the cat — who are responsible for about 70 condors, including breeding adults, juveniles and chicks. (Plus at least a dozen taita and aplomado falcons.)
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And the thing is: The attachment is all one-sided. Condors see researchers only on rare occasions, and those are all for negative experiences, like vaccinations and tagging.
But there’s something about condors, Jenkins says. She quotes environmental author John Neilson:
“Once this bird gets into your head, it does exactly as it pleases. You can try to shoo it away, do it harm and forget it’s even there, but the condor will still be there in the background somewhere, biding its own sweet time.
“Then one day it will rise, spread its wings, lean into the wind and own you.”
• • •
Growing up, Jenkins was what she calls a “National Geographic kid,” with a passion for animals and wildlife.
Her first job was zookeeper at the Dallas Zoo, working with chimps and gorillas. She got a job in the California condor breeding program at the Los Angeles Zoo, not because she knew a lot about condors, but because she knew all about social hierarchies and animals who depended on social bonds — including condors. She thought that would be a temporary job until she worked again with primates.
Jenkins later found her dream job at a Florida chimpanzee sanctuary. But the day she was to meet her co-workers for the first time, she picked up a newspaper that featured a photo of a newly released California condor juvenile, soaring over the hills for the first time.
“I knew instantly that I had made the wrong choice. I immediately knew.”
She got her old job back. She did field work at the Peregrine Fund’s release site at Vermilion Cliffs near the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Then she moved to Boise. She runs the largest of five California condor captive breeding programs in the world and estimates she’s worked with more than 300 birds.
• • •
Four years ago, Condor chick 628 was not happy. Four days old, she was the size of a fluffy tennis ball with baby wings and not enough downy feathers to keep her warm. She was cold and miserable in the plywood nest box, tucked in the back of her parents’ chamber in the breeding center. She cried for help — in vain. Something had spooked her parents in the nest box, and they were too scared to return.
Chick 628’s cries and complaints only amplified their fears. The longer they stayed away, the louder she cried.
In the wild, she likely would have died.
Unbeknownst to her, she had backup parents. While human intervention is a last resort, Jenkins was ready. She crouched in the dark hallway behind the nest box and cracked the door, just enough to slip her hand in and warm the chick.
“She would settle down and snug up under my hand, and then I’d hear (the parents) starting to come closer, so I’d pull my hand out and shut the door. And before they could get to the nest box, she’d start complaining and crying again, and (the parents) would leave and go further away.
“Finally, I just realized that she was almost out of energy. She had cried and screamed for hours, and she was so small. She needed to eat and she needed to warm up.”
So Jenkins and her crew hand-raised the chick until she was 63 days old. Foster parents delivered meals with a puppet that sort of looked like a condor, with the puppeteer hidden behind a curtain. Puppet raising is tricky, but 628 thrived and, in time, was released into a pen with other juveniles.
“It took a while; she didn’t quite know what they were, and they didn’t quite know what she was. She knew she wasn’t a human, because anytime she had seen us, we had (done) something painful to her. She was [terrified] of us. She definitely wasn’t drawn to people, but she wasn’t quite sure how to get into the group.
“She was like that socially awkward kid.”
When the chicks grow into condor teenagers, Jenkins and her colleagues drive them to sites in the Southwest to be released into the wild. Jenkins gave 628 an extra year to mature. By the end of her second year, she was socializing and eating with the group. She belonged.
“But we were still a little worried, because we raised this thing with a puppet, so we’re nervous. We sent her out into the wild and I hounded the field people. I was like, so tell me, how is she doing?”
The biologist at the release site reported that 628 was probably the easiest bird they had ever released.
“There was a group of wild condors already feeding on a carcass [near the release site. The biologist] said she walked right out, walked up to the group, worked her way in and started feeding on the carcass — which is pretty rare and pretty impressive. The group dispersed ... and she flew with them. ...
“Oh, my gosh, I was just happy for her.
“Because if you get this wrong, you ruin the life of an animal that has 50 years to live. You know? Like, if you mess this up, you’ve just committed an animal with a long life to a captive environment. I was so happy for her.”
• • •
In 1987, there were 22 California condors in the world. When there was only one breeding-age female left in the wild, researchers trapped the remaining wild birds to be part of a collaborative captive breeding program.
There were many factors in the demise of condors, but one of the leading reasons was — and continues to be — lead poisoning. Lead from ammunition.
“We’ve been hunters on the landscape for a long time, and condors, being smart scavengers, have figured out that we’re really good hunters. And so they have followed behind us and cleaned up the remains that we leave in the field, from animals that we take.”
It’s not just condors: All scavengers, including bald and golden eagles, get sick or die when they ingest lead fragments from carcasses in the field.
Lead poisoning shuts down a condor’s digestive system. The bird feels hungry and continues to eat, but food doesn’t pass through its system. Food gets stuck in their crop, decays and poisons them from the inside out. Lead poisoning also shuts down their motor skills, so they’re unable to use their legs or wings. They become very thirsty.
“In some of the worst cases, you’ll find condors lying along a riverbank and you’ll see a trail where they drug themselves with their wings to try and get a drink of water before they died.
“Even though we can catch them and we can treat some of them and save some of their lives, it’s not an easy process. It’s very time consuming, very expensive, very painful, and it’s a horrible way to treat a wild animal.
“But it’s still the determining factor whether condors are going to survive in the wild.”
And so, every year, every released condor that biologists can find is trapped and tested for lead poisoning. In her first year in the wild, condor 628 tested positive. She was treated at the Los Angeles Zoo with an injection twice a day, every day, for five days.
“It’s painful; it’s tragic to watch and a lot of times (the condor is) too sick to be saved.”
Yet Marti also found a source of pride in condor 628’s poisoning.
“It means she was a wild condor, because wild condors find their own food. ... That means she was not reliant on food the biologists put out that was clean and safe. She was going out and finding her own food with the group. ... And unfortunately, a lot of times that food contains lead.”
Last year, Jenkins learned that 628 had died from lead poisoning less than a year after she was released. She was just over 3 years old.
“It’s super tragic. But that is the story of the condor.
“It shouldn’t be.”
• • •
In 30 years, the worldwide California condor population has grown from 22 to almost 450, with more than half of them in the wild. It’s not a success story yet: The population is as high as it is precisely because biologists are treating wild condors for lead poisoning. Without that, their numbers would drop dramatically.
“Every chick that hatches here, I know that its odds of surviving lead poisoning in the wild are low. And that is heartbreaking.
“But what makes me keep going is this is a species that just doesn’t want to quit.
“Condors don’t quit. Death is just what’s for dinner.”
• • •
The final word about the survival of condors, Jenkins says, will be the American people and what they decide to do about lead bullets.
Copper bullets are an alternative to lead, and California has outlawed lead bullets by 2019 — but the issue remains highly politicized. For example, in one of his first acts as Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke overturned an Obama administration ban on lead bullets in wildlife refuges.
Biologists, however, are doing all they can, Jenkins says.
“We have figured out how to breed (condors) successfully; we have figured out how to raise them successfully. We know how to reintroduce them successfully and have figured out how to get them to survive to adulthood successfully. ...”
Jenkins and her crew prepare for next year’s chicks and keep watch over this year’s flock, watching and caring for them until they, too, travel to the release site, to fly as away as wild birds — and into their fate.
“I’ve seen incredibly sick, incredibly injured condors that fought their way through — just determined to make it. It takes a lot to kill a condor.
“When I said ... they can take a ridiculous lead burden and survive it, it is true. They will try to survive anything. I mean, they have a spirit that you just can’t imagine.
“They’re giving it all they’ve got. And I can’t not want to help that. They’re hanging on with talon and beak, and clawing their way into life.
“If I can support that in any way, then it’s worth it. It’s not too much.”
About 16 condor chicks hatch each year at the Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey. Condors typically lay one egg a year, far too precious to leave to chance.
In one of the more stealthy interactions she has with the condors, Marti Jenkins, director of The Peregrine Fund’s California condor propagation program, steals each egg to put in an incubator and replaces it with a substitute egg.
“It is the worst kind of nerve-racking. ...
“You’re listening for the parents to come back; you have to get the egg, leave the fake egg, get the door closed and shut and latched before they come back. ... You’re shaking all over (but) you’re trying not to shake the egg ...
“If they catch you or if they come blazing in that nest box and they’re really angry or upset or worried, (at least) you’ve left a fake egg. ... Now they have days to get over whatever happened and see if they’ll come back to that fake egg and sit on it.”
When, in the incubator, chicks start “pipping,” or pecking at the shell when they’re ready to hatch, researchers have about three days to return the egg to the nest. It’s the fake egg in reverse, only the stakes are much higher.
“It’s excruciatingly scary ... If they catch you or if they suspect you were in the nest box — or they suspect something funny happened in the nest box — you’ve now left a live, hatching egg in there.”
If they’re really frightened, the parents could crush the egg or abandon the nest. But if it works, it works.
“They come back to the nest box and their egg is pipped and they can feel the embryo tapping on the shell and the chick will vocalize ... They’ll vocalize back to it and then they’re really locked on. … And the chick hatches underneath them.
“It’s a birthday every time.”
Visit World Center for Birds of Prey now
At 3 p.m. every Friday, Saturday and Sunday through Nov. 4 experience raptors in flight, weather permitting. Arrive early for seating. (Condors are on display, but they are not among the birds that fly.) Free for members; $10 adults, $8 seniors, $5 youth 4-16. For more information, check Facebook at World Center for Birds of Prey.
The center is on the edge of the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area, where 800 pairs of hawks, owls, eagles and falcons come each spring to mate and raise their young. Congress established the area in 1993 to protect a desert environment that is said to support North America's highest density of nesting raptors. Nelson, an Idaho conservationist, was pivotal in getting the Peregrine Fund to put its research and education center in Boise.
The California condors raised at the center are not released in the adjacent conservation area and do not fly in Idaho.