AC8 - Adult Condor 8
by Mike Stiles
This is the tale of AC8 (Adult Condor 8) who is truly the epitome of the condor's struggle for existence as human encroachment has pushed the species to the brink of extinction.
The California Condor once ranged over the entire west coast and east into Florida and even into New York. Because of climate change and the loss of the large Pleistocene mammal food supply, and even due to native Americans collecting the birds for ceremonial purposes, the large birds were pushed back into a fraction of their historical range, the mountains of southern California.
In the 1900's, poaching, egg collecting, lead poisoning, and habitat loss reduced the numbers of wild condors dramatically. In the spring of 1982, the condor population stood at a mere 22 birds. Biologists with the Fish and Wildlife Service started a captive breeding program, and took the first chick out of the wild. They named it Xolxol (pronounced holhol), a Chumash word meaning "one of the sky people." This bird is still living in the San Diego Wild animal park and has sired 25 chicks, many of which have been released back into the wild. Xolxol's mother was AC8.
AC8 continued to nest and rear young over the next few years, and those young were also taken into the captive breeding program. In 1985 she and her mate were one of only five pair of nesting California Condors in the world. The total population in the wild that year had dwindled to 15. Then in November, AC8's partner disappeared and never returned.
Biologists were still optimistic however, because of the success of the captive breeding program in the zoos, and the continued collection of young from the wild. It was thought that with one more productive year, the young zoo-born condors could be released back into the wild to join the free-flying flock. It was not to be though, when biologists were unable to find several mates of known pairs, and several condors were found dead due to lead poisoning. This left only nine condors and only one actively breeding pair.
With so few condors left, the decision was made to take the last remaining birds out of the wild. This decision was not made lightly, and there was great opposition to it. Interestingly, the National Audubon Society was one of the most outspoken opponents to the planned capture of the remaining condors. They argued that if the birds were removed from the wild, there would be no impetus to protect critical condor habitat.
The decision was made though, and three condors were taken from the wild initially, leaving only four males and two females, one of which was AC8. In 1986, AC8 became the only female condor in the wild when the other female was found sick and later died of lead poisoning. AC8 was courted by the four remaining males, but paired up with AC9, the youngest and least experienced, and laid two eggs. One egg was thin shelled and never hatched. The other hatched and that chick was also taken out of the wild.
On June 5th 1986, AC8, the last female condor, was taken from the wild, and on Easter Sunday 1987, when AC9 was captured, for the first time in tens of thousands of years, there was not a single free-flying California Condor.
For 14 years AC8 lived in the San Diego Zoo, and is considered to be the matriarch of the condor population. She produced 12 chicks and has 106 direct descendants. It was thought that she was the oldest living condor, at least 26 years of age, but biologists thought it was probably closer to 40 years, and in 1995 she was thought to be past her breeding age. There was no more she could do for the captive breeding program, and was proposed for release so she could mentor the free-flying condors. In April of 2000, AC8 was released back into the wild, the first wild-born condor to be set free.
She quickly returned to her former haunts, and frequently visited the southern Tehachapi Mountains. She roamed for several years, but became sick from ingesting lead bullet fragments in carcasses and gutpiles, and was again back in the zoo, this time in the hospital. She survived what was called the highest lead levels ever recorded in a condor, and was again released just before Christmas in 2002.
Three months later, AC8 was shot and killed by poacher Britton Lewis on an organized pig hunt on the Tejon Ranch. Her body now resides in a glass case in the Chumash Reservation in Santa Ynez, lovingly prepared, I am told, by John Schmitt, who was one of the many biologists who observed the condor's every move for many years.
There is some light in this dark story. Many of AC8's descendants are flying wild. AC9 has been released and has sired a wild-born chick, and there are currently 381 living condors—192 in the wild, not only in California, but also in the Grand Canyon and Baja California. With hope, and the continuing efforts of many, these immense birds will continue to roam the skies.
For more information on the long history of the condor rescue efforts see "The California Condor: A saga of natural history and conservation" by Noel and Helen Snyder. Many thanks to David Clendenen and Nick Todd, two long-time condor biologists, and to Jan Hamber for help with this article. They all have given much time and effort to the condor, often in the remote backcountry.
Burrowing Owl on banner by Cleve Nash.