Condors and Redwood Fire Management: Big Birds in Tall Trees
A century ago, the complex crowns of coast redwood trees may have afforded important nesting sites for the largest species of bird in North America--the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus). Just as repeated fires lead to cavity formation at the base of trees, related processes generate canopy cavities that provide a dry cliff-cave-like shelter. While only a small fraction of large old growth redwood have canopy cavities, these unusual fire features likely provided a unique habitat element along the California coast for millennia.
Early scientific observations of condors along the redwood coast are rare. In a 1906 account published in the journal Condor, Hubert Jenkins reported useful observations after a birding expedition south of Monterey. He wrote, "On reaching Villa canyon at dusk July 18, we saw eight or ten condors roosting in a grove of tall redwoods. None were
secured." This observation documents that coast redwoods provided roosting habitat for condors in the wild, but did redwood forests provide any other habitat elements?
Until recently, there were too few of these endangered birds in the wild to know the answer to this question. By 1987, only 22 condors survived in the wild due to a century and a half of intensive poaching, poisoning by lead ammunition and habitat loss. Through government and private efforts, these survivors were removed from the wild and their numbers grew through a captive breeding program at the San Diego Wild Animal Park and the Los Angelos zoo. As of 2008, there were 332 alive, 156 of which have been released in California and Arizona.
No one guessed that California condors would nest in a coast redwood canopy fire cavity. In 2008, one of these released birds decided to nest in one near Big Sur. As if this nesting event was not remarkable enough for redwood ecologists, the site where the nest tree occurred burned in a wildfire that year, and the chick survived.
As the condor population recovers and new release sites are considered, it may be possible to restore the California condor to other portions of the coast redwood range. A century and a half ago it soared from Baja to British Columbia, well beyond the northern and southern limits of coast redwood. Where suitable rocky cliffs are not available for nesting, this magnificent and rare bird may find suitable habitat among the tallest trees on earth, but the long-term availability of canopy fire cavities is tied to fire. As this one bird's nesting success shows, the viability in the coast redwood forest habitat for condors may be linked to our decision to retain fire as a source of canopy complexity.
For more information about the Big Sur condor nest in a coast redwood tree and the recent wildfire there, see the Ventana Wildlife Society or view their videos below. (Note: These YouTube videos may only be accessible from a non-government computer).