SPRINGDALE, Washington County — In a thrilling first for wildlife biologists, two confirmed California condor nests with nestlings inside have been discovered in Utah during the same breeding season.
The Peregrine Fund, a conservation nonprofit that has aided the California Condor Recovery Program, reported Wednesday that biologists discovered two nests in and around Zion National Park with nestlings in them. It's a monumental step for a species once on the brink of extinction in the early 1980s before the start of the Condor Recovery Program.
"This is the first time we've had two successful nests in the year and it's just a sign that the birds have recognized that Utah provides some excellent nesting habitat and good habitat in general," said Keith Day, a biologist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. "It's just encouraging for us to see the population begin to expand and hopefully increase and fill all the suitable and available habitat, which, of course, should increase the chances of recovery."
Zion National Park biologists confirmed the first nest near Angels Landing inside Zion National Park. They estimate that the young bird hatched around April 16. Bureau of Land Management biologists confirmed the second nest at a site east of the park. It's believed the young bird there hatched sometime around May 11, according to the Peregrine Fund.
The California condor chick that hatched near Angels Landing is the younger sibling of "1K," which became the 1,000th condor chick to hatch in the recovery program's history in 2019. Experts with the Peregrine Fund said Wednesday that 1K's parents returned to the same nest to raise a new chick given the studbook number "1,111." They believe "1,111" will be ready to fledge the nest sometime in mid-October. The bird will then spend about two years with its parents before being able to live on its own.
Biologists were pleasantly surprised with the second nest. They said it's the first offspring of a 6-year-old female condor known as "801." The nestling was a surprise because experts said the average female condor doesn't have successful breeding until they are about 8. Her mate, "605," was also a male bird they previously believed hadn't found a mate earlier in the year. Their offspring is also expected to fledge in the fall.
The California condor's population dipped below two dozen by 1982, according to the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance Library. Lead poisoning, which birds experienced from ingesting tainted carcasses from hunted animals, was one reason behind the drop-off in the species. Small trash, poaching and the production of thin-shelled eggs caused by other chemicals and elements also contributed.
Biologists and wildlife agencies have worked with hunters to get them to switch to nontoxic ammunition. Breeding programs were included as well to boost populations and the work has paid off. There are now a little more than 500 California condors in the world. Of those, Day said about 100 are located within the southern Utah and northern Arizona area.
While the species is steadily recovering from near extinction, it's still listed as "critically endangered." That's why the southern Utah nestlings are a welcome sight for biologists. They hope that it's just the beginning for a species slowly being able to survive on its own.
"We're certainly not entirely out of intensive management for even condors but the signs they've been showing over the years — that they are breeding and rearing young on their own — is allowing us to back off some," Day said. "It gives us the hope that they eventually can more let nature take its course and not be so intensively involved in the management.
"It takes a while," he added. "But every step in this direction is just hopefully a step closer to recovery."