On August 5, 1985 three of the last nine wild condors soared close overhead as I stood, awestruck, in the foothills above San Bernardino, California.  While they were certainly majestic, these birds were somewhat different from the California Condors first described by George Shaw in 1797, and that Lewis and Clark had observed feeding on a beached whale carcass near the mouth of the Columbia River.  In fact, the birds I saw were the first of a new breed of condor, birds perhaps undergoing an evolutionary speciation event to become a new species, or at least subspecies—the human commensal Bionic Condor.

In the early 1980s, when the population of wild California Condors dipped into the low double digits, biologist captured the remaining birds and outfitted them with identification tags and radio transmitters.  These new condors (Gymnogyps californianus var. bionicus) were tracked and their every movement noted.  Finally, as their numbers continued to decline, the birds were all captured and placed into a captive breeding program.  The last free-flying condor was Igor, Adult Condor #9 (AC-9).  One of the three birds I had seen two years earlier, AC-9 was captured on Easter Sunday, April 19, 1987.

The birds reproduced well in captivity, and ID-tagged and radio-equipped Bionic Condors were released back into the wild starting in 1991.  The birds are trained to avoid power lines, provided lead-free carcasses at feeding stations, and periodically captured for blood testing and detoxification.  Without constant attention and monitoring by people, it is doubtful that these Bionic Condors could persist for long in the wild.  As of November 2007, there are 302 of these condors, with 155 birds living in the wild.  The free-flying birds include AC-9, the last of the original condor flock, who was released after 15 years in captivity in May 1, 2002.  Two years later, on Easter Sunday 2004, AC-9 and his new mate hatched their first egg outside of the Los Angeles Zoo.

Perhaps someday California Condors will fly free, unfettered by tags or radio transmitters and able to live out their lives without frequenting feeding stations or being repeatedly caught and tested for lead poisoning.  But even if they can only persist as Bionic Condors, heavily assisted by their human caretakers, AC-9 and his relatives are survivors—noble descendants of long-lived birds that have soared across the Americas since before the first human settlers trekked over the Bering Straits during the last ice age.  Ancient elders, condors have much to teach us about how to live in harmony with the rest of our natural surroundings, and our futures are now bound inextricably together.  As humans and condors adapt to each other, and to our changing world, as go Bionic Condors, so go the rest of us.  May AC-9 and his kin live long and prosper in our ever shrinking world.

This post was written by The Birdchaser himself, Rob Fergus. Rob,an indefatigable advocate for citizen science and avian conservation, is not, as you probably figured out, above chasing the occasional rarity. – Mike

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