A lonely cave on a cliff in the rugged Pinnacles National Monument is the setting for a story of two love birds who found one another despite unimaginable hardship and decided to bring new life into a world that almost destroyed them.
They are, of course, giant corpse-munching vultures, but wildlife biologists could not be more thrilled if they were Romeo and Juliet.
The lovers in this case are California condors and together they have built the first condor nest in the Pinnacles in more than 100 years, a pivotal moment in the effort to bring back the majestic birds from the brink of extinction.
“Condors historically called the Pinnacles home, but because of the declining population the birds have not nested in the park in 100 years,” said Carl Brenner, the chief of interpretation and education for the national monument, which is in the Gabilan Mountains about 30 miles south of Salinas. “Forty years ago there were no condors in the park. This is a milestone for the park recovery program.”
A nest with a single egg was found recently in a cave on top of a cliff known to rock climbers as Resurrection Wall, on the west side of the park. The egg is the product of a romance between 7-year-old condors with the decidedly unpoetic names 317 and 318.
The lower-numbered female, released in the park in 2004, is one of 26 condors who now reside in and around the Pinnacles. Her mate is from a flock that hangs out along the Big Sur coast, Brenner said.
The pair was first spotted in February displaying feathers, flashing their brightly colored heads and necks and performing other shamelessly flirtatious rituals associated with condor courtship. Biologists tracked the pair to their nest using radio telemetry and global positioning technology and confirmed the egg.
With a wingspan of 10 feet, the California condor is the largest North American land bird and a symbol of a time when the far West was an untamed wilderness. The massive black vulture is one of the world’s longest-living birds, with a lifespan in the wild of 35 to 40 years.
Once widespread across North America, the condor has declined precipitously since the 19th century when they were hunted and poisoned with the lead shot that was often left in meat they scavenged.
Despite being listed on the federal endangered species list in 1967, only 22 remained in the world in 1987, prompting conservationists to capture the remaining birds and start a breeding program at the San Diego Wild Animal Park and the Los Angeles Zoo.
Since then, millions of dollars and countless man-hours have been spent trying to bring the species back. The birds were reintroduced in California, Arizona and Baja California starting in 1991, and there are now 348 condors in the wild and another 161 in captive breeding centers.
The goal is to eventually have 150 free-flying birds and 15 breeding pairs in both California and Arizona, but there are still many hurdles.
Just last year, two California condors were found in the Pinnacles area suffering from gunshot wounds, prompting a statewide manhunt for the poachers.
Another obstacle to recovery is the fact that condors typically do not begin breeding until they are 7 years old.
Brenner said the egg is not expected to hatch for almost three months. The nesting area will be closed to the public until the chick takes flight sometime in October.
The birds will retain their numerical names, Brenner said, unless the Chumash Indians, from the Santa Barbara area, decide to give them proper names.
The tribe has naming rights because they consider condors sacred, but so far they have only named one condor for its skill teaching younger birds how to live in the wild, naming it Hohi.
In their bliss, 317 and 318 probably couldn’t care less.
“It is anticipated that they will mate for life now,” Brenner said.
E-mail Peter Fimrite at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page C – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle