In the late 1970s and early 1980s, newspapers were remarkably concerned with the sex lives of California condors. Here’s the story.
“Sex and the Single Condor” was an editorial in the Los Angeles Times for 19 December 1979. The newspaper’s editors wrote:
The California condor … was once a common sight …
But no more …
There is now hope, however, that human intervention may save the birds from extinction.
The editorial goes on to describe plans for a captive breeding program. Such a program was necessary because
… in the last two years scientists have been able to find no evidence whatever of nesting activity.
At the time, there was only one California condor in captivity, a male named Topatopa. The editorial concluded:
An attempt … will be made to find a mate for Topatopa, who has been waiting a long, long time for the company of his peers – and for a little romance.
On 12 November 1982, the New York Times published the news article “Condor Chick a Male; Mate Will Be Sought”. This article began:
Wanted: female condor to share a $100,000 pad. Mountain view. Free room and board.
The explanation followed: A 6-month-old condor had been captured to begin a breeding program at the San Diego Wild Animal Park. The bird was a male.
Less than a month later (8 December 1982), the Los Angeles Times reported in “Female Condor Still Wanted” that a condor had been captured by the Los Angeles Zoo as a potential mate for Topatopa. But the newly-captured bird turned out to be another male and was released back into the wild.
The Los Angeles Zoo was not simply waiting for a partner for their condor. From “Condor to Learn About Birds, Bees”, published 13 January 1983 in the Los Angeles Times, we learn that the Philadelphia Zoo was sending their pair of Andean condors to the Los Angeles Zoo to
be placed in a separate cage but visible to … “Topa Topa” so he can see how they socialize …
A few months later (11 June 1983) the Los Angeles Times published “Busy Sex Life Ahead for Zoo’s Condor”. This article began with “It’s a girl!” Two eggs taken from nests in the wild had been successfully hatched at the San Diego Wild Animal Park and one of those birds was female. That was good news because, as the article noted:
It is believed that only about 20 condors remain [in the wild].
The bad news, however, was that it would be 7 years before the female chick would be reproductively mature.
The Los Angeles Times for 23 March 1984 included a long article under the headline “Zoo Program Aims at Getting Condors to Crank out Eggs”. The article quotes Art Risser of the San Diego Zoo:
We’ve got to maximize production and get them (condors) cranking on those eggs.
At this point, there were only 5 mated pairs of California condors living in the wild. Risser explained that the plan was to take eggs from the their nests the day after they are laid. The eggs would be hatched at the zoo. The expectation was that the parents who lost their egg would soon mate again and produce another egg.
More than another year passed before there was finally the possibility of actual mating in captivity. “Captured Condor a Female; First Mating Possible”, published in the 13 August 1985 Los Angeles Times, explained that the female member of a wild condor couple had been captured. The male believed to be her mate had been captured previously so they were now reunited.
This article also reported the latest population statistics: 7 California condors in the wild and 18 in captivity. The latter includes those hatched in captivity from eggs that were taken from the wild.
To end this post, I step back several decades. In the Los Angeles Times for 10 November 1939, columnist Lee Shippey wrote that:
The California condor is the biggest bird that flies the skies of North America, and there are only 34 of them left. The female condor lays only one egg in two years, all being followers of Margaret Sanger and highly moral.
Shippey goes on to note plans by the University of California and National Association of Audubon Societies to “save these birds”. A mailing address was given so readers could send donations to support the project. I think it’s worth emphasizing that this was more than 80 years ago.
While the tone of all this is, at least in part, on the lighter side, I cannot help but feel the underlying sense of desperation, of not knowing if the California condor would survive as a species.