On June 5, 1986, when biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service trapped the California Condor that became known as Adult Condor-8, fewer than ten such birds remained in the wild and the species as a whole faced almost certain extinction. When officials returned that same bird to its natural habitat fourteen years later -- the first wild-born condor released since the advent of captive-breeding programs -- it joined some sixty free condors. Now the question is not so much whether the California Condor will survive but what happens when a bird kept from its home for more than a decade returns.
The first step biologists undertook to prepare AC-8 for its release was to move the bird from the San Diego Wild Animal Park, where it had lived since its capture and produced twelve offspring, to the Los Angeles Zoo, which contains a flight pen 100 feet long and 60 feet high. AC-8 spent six months there, stretching its wings -- which measure 9 feet across -- and sharing space with younger condors. The hope was that the older bird would teach the captive-bred chicks survival skills it had learned in the wild, such as how to compete with other birds for food and perches.
Biologists also installed a replica high-voltage power pole in the pen. Birds learn to avoid these hazards in the wild. Captive birds, though, sometimes run into trouble with power poles upon their release. In the pen, the replica pole was wired to administer a low-level shock when a condor landed on it, thereby teaching the bird to avoid them.
A week before its release date, biologists moved AC-8 once more, this time to the Sespe Condor Sanctuary near Fillmore, California. A pair of one-year-old condors also made the trip. There, the birds shared a holding pen made to resemble a cave and took short flights in an attached net structure. These flights allowed the birds an opportunity to inspect the local terrain and become accustomed to their new surroundings.
Eventually the nets were removed, and at 10:15 a.m. on April 4, 2000, AC-8 and the two younger condors took to the air. Biologists released the three birds together in hopes that AC-8 will act as a mentor to the juvenile condors. Biologists will monitor the birds at all times using miniature radio transmitters fitted to the birds' wings. Colored and numbered tags also mark the birds for visual identification, and AC-8's movements will be tracked via satellite -- the first time satellite technology has ever been used to track a condor.