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May 19, 2021
Nonprofit Interviews

Saving the California Condor from Extinction: An Interview with Kelly Sorenson of the Ventana Wildlife Society

If you’ve ever seen a California Condor (Gymnogyps Californianus) hopping and walking around on the ground, you were probably given a good laugh at their ungainly, awkward behavior. Like a hunched-over bald man slowly making their way through life, condors search the ground for food or nesting material. If you’ve ever had the good-fortune to see one in flight, you were treated to one of the great spectacles of the sky. These unflappable giants use their nearly 10 ft wingspan to ride and rise on thermal currents, gracefully gliding for up to 150 miles in a single day in search of food.

These relics from a prehistoric past ranged from British Columbia down to Baja Mexico, but through changes in land-use, climate change, and the use of lead bullets for hunting and ranch protection, their numbers dwindled to just 22 left alive by the mid 80s. Thankfully, the Ventana Wildlife Society (VWS) was formed and has been instrumental to the Condor’s recovery to over 500 today, but they are still at great risk. Kelly Sorenson, the Executive Director, has been with the organization for almost 30 years, starting off as a Field Biologist during his undergraduate studies. 

I was introduced to VWS by my wife Alyra, who has been a fan and supporter of their work since she was a child. We sat down virtually with Kelly to discuss his involvement and growth with the organization, the majesty and the quirks of the birds, and what we can each do as individuals to help ensure their survival and return to thriving independence.

You can watch the complete interview on YouTube, or continue reading below for a very brief synopsis. 

We are Still Learning About these Animals

Birds in general, and condors specifically typically demonstrate very high levels of pair-bonding and monogamy, but what we learned from Kelly is that they’ve seen parenting outside of the typical male-female pairing. They’ve seen same-sex duos, and even trios raising eggs and chicks with such equal levels of parenting by all three where they couldn’t tell who the father was until they eventually conducted a DNA test. They continue to show new social dynamics and that each bird, which may live up to 50 years, is unique in their personality and character. The oldest living condor, Beak Boy is currently 24 and hopefully by the time he reaches 50, we will have learned even more new facts about these amazing creatures.

Building a Community of Online Condor Protectors

Back in 2013, when Alyra and I were courting, she would share with me webcams of the condors that VWS had set up to watch over them at their feeding grounds, at some of the nests, and at their sanctuary in Big Sur. These efforts, along with social media and email campaigns and events like their now monthly Condor Zoom Chats have built up a distributed base of supporters. 

“We have supporters in every state of the union, and about a dozen countries around the world, mostly English speaking countries.” 

How We can Help Protect the Condors and other Animals

  1. Pickup litter — Condors mistake small bits of plastic as shells which they eat for calcium. They digest the plastic which makes them sick
  2. Buy copper ammunition for use in the wilderness — The number one cause of death in condors is lead poisoning from eating carcasess that have been killed by both partially-, and fully-jacketed lead bullets.
  3. Stop climate change — The loss of habitat from shifting temperature, moisture, and feeding opportunities puts additional pressure on the population as they are forced to go into and through human-inhabited areas.
  4. Support the work of VWS! — You can donate to their efforts of protecting condors and eagles either directly, or through an AtmosACTION account. If you haven’t yet opened an account, we’ll make an extra $5 donation to them when you do.

Condors have come far, but still need our protection

When asked about what he WAS most proud of, Kelly shared a hope of his for what he WILL BE most proud. It’s a goal that can be applied to all conservation efforts and even to the work of Atmos — that they’re no longer needed. 

Condor #204, "Amigo" in flight
Photo Credit: VWS Field Biologist Stephanie Herrera

“...The wing tags that the Condors carry around — they symbolize the need to be managed, they need to be watched over. We have to get more from the zoos and release them into the wild, we have to continue to work hard to reduce threats in the wild, so that they're living longer out there, That's really the bottom line. When the tags are no longer on those birds, it symbolizes more freedom, it symbolizes their independence again, that they're self sustaining. And that's what I'm going to be proud of. We're not there yet but that's what this is really all about.”

Atmos offers high-rate, online FDIC-insured banking accounts that simplify and reward giving, and where every dollar deposited is used to reduce global warming. JoinAtmos to support the Ventana Wildlife Society.

Hero-Image Photo Credit: VWS Field Biologist Stephanie Herrera

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