SPOTLIGHT: Ventana Wildlife Society
For the Ventana Wildlife Society, condors are the compass for conservation—and a success story, against the odds.
By Christopher Neely
Few land animals have captivated the Central Coast to the level of the California condor. With at least a 9-foot wingspan, California condors are the largest flying bird in North America.
This buzzard has managed to inspire wonder, in contrast to the stamp of unwelcome that pop culture has placed on its vulture cousins—perhaps, in part, because their round, bald heads and beady eyes have a more professorial look than turkey vultures.
Kelly Sorenson, executive director of the nonprofit Ventana Wildlife Society, believes the reason is less superficial.
“Condors are very loving and affectionate, which really surprises people. They share the duties of raising their young and, if you watch them in their nests, they’re all wrapped up and huggy,” Sorenson says. “Also, people love an underdog story.”
The California condor dominated the western North American landscape for hundreds of years but populations began to decline dramatically in the 20th century. By 1982, there were 22 remaining in the wild. VWA began in 1977 by working to reestablish the American bald eagle along the Central Coast, and by the late 1980s, shifted focus to condors.
By 1987, VWS helped capture all wild California condors and worked to breed them in captivity. By 1997, they began
releasing the birds back into the wild. Today, there are 92 condors along the Central Coast. All are closely monitored:
each bird is tagged with a number, GPS tracker and an FM transmitter.
“Condors are barely hanging on. Our goal is we want to know where every individual bird is at all times,” Sorenson says. When VWS released three condors in San Simeon on Dec. 4, more than 400 people were watching the livestream from across the world. “It matters to people greatly to have a success story for an endangered species,” Sorenson says.
Recent years have been tenuous. The 2020 Dolan Fire killed 10 adult birds and two chicks, and destroyed VWS’
research facilities. So far in 2021, 13 local condors have died, 11 poisoned by ingesting lead bullets in carcasses left
behind by hunters: the leading condor killer. Much of the organization’s work has turned to encouraging ammunition
alternatives. Sorenson says 2022 will be “all about rebuilding,” focused on restoring facilities lost in the fire.