From a very young age, Mike “Bird Kid” Wallace was fascinated with birds, starting first with pigeons and other “backyard variety” birds. His passion eventually developed into an interest in birds of prey.
As a young teenager, Wallace was given the task of taking care of pigeons that were housed in a granary across the street from his house. His job was to feed them. He became fascinated with how he was able manipulate the pigeons and get them to do what he wanted with something as benign as stale bread.
Fast-forward to Wallace’s freshman year at Unity College. He wanted to keep birds of prey and he was able establish relationships with a few local farmers who gave him permission to use some of their barns and outbuildings for housing his “pet” birds
“When I first arrived at Unity, I was pleasantly surprised by the support of the local community of what may have seemed a rather ‘strange’ hobby,” said Wallace. “At the time, not many other people I knew were all that interested in falconry, or training and keeping birds of prey, but when I got to campus and quickly found the resources between the professors and the locals to help continue my passion, I knew I had found the right place.”
After he graduated from Unity College, Wallace went on to earn a master’s in wildlife ecology and a double PhD in wildlife ecology and poultry science, all from the University of Wisconsin. There, he learned about the California condor.
The condor, a highly intelligent and social bird, has the largest wingspan of any North American bird, the ability to soar up to 18,000 feet, and to fly at speeds of 85 miles per hour in a steep glide. They rely on their keen eyesight to find food, and when the flying conditions are good, sometimes travel up to 150 miles per day for a meal. Because they are vultures, condors primarily eat carrion, and the adaptation of their bald heads gives them the ability to reach into rotting carcasses to feed and then clean up easily. Another unique characteristic of the condor is its ability to change the skin color on its head and neck, indicating emotion and serving as a means of communication between individual birds.
“California condors are not your ‘typical’ bird like a black duck, eagle or Canada goose. Think of the condor as a social carnivore, similar to a wolf or hyena, where the species has a hierarchical social structure,” said Wallace. “Each condor has a unique personality and a non-permanent status within his or her population that it is continually trying to improve. Higher status birds have better access to food territory and mates,” said Wallace.
But the condors were in serious trouble. The condor population was plummeting. In the 1980s, scientists knew that the primary contributing factors to the decrease in the condor population were characteristics natural to the species: condors have a late sexual maturity at about 7 to 8 years of age; a very low clutch size (only one young per nest, per season); and baby birds are cared for by parents for as long as 18 months. So at best, a successful pair of condor parents produces only one fledgling every two years. With an increase in public awareness on the plight of the condor, it became evident that there were other, more human-initiated factors that were contributing to the population decrease as well: poaching; lead poisoning from the birds eating animal carcasses shot with lead bullets (by far their most deadly mortality factor); DDT poisoning; electrocution and collisions with power lines; egg collecting; and habitat destruction. And so it was decided to initiate a captive breeding program.
The idea of trying to recover the condor population by capturing all the birds and breeding them in captivity was at first met with some opposition, particularly by conservationists and Native American communities. The argument: capturing all of the birds and taking away their freedom might change the habits of the species forever.
Despite the controversy, in 1987 the last of the remaining California condors in existence at the time was captured, and the 27 birds were distributed between the Los Angeles and San Diego zoos. Working with the United States Department of the Interior, the California Fishing Game Department and the Forest Service, the two zoos officially started the captive breeding program. The US Fish and Wildlife Service also formed a recovery team made up of scientists and condor experts to advise on condor management. Wallace was one of the first members and served as the team leader for many years.
The priority was to increase the population as quickly as possible. Mother condors do not have the ability to differentiate their eggs and are in fact stimulated to lay another if the first one is broken or goes missing. Managers began taking the first egg when the female wasn’t looking, inducing her to lay another, a method is known as double clutching. In condors, the “mourning” or “recycling” period between the loss of one egg and laying the next is approximately 30 days, so the turnaround time for a female to lay a subsequent egg is relatively quick. On occasion, the managers would also take the second egg, often prompting the mother to produce yet a third, or triple clutch.
Through this practice of multiple clutching, the female condors were consistently laying multiple eggs, which quickly translated to the reproduction of four to six chicks every two years, as compared to only one offspring over the same time period. Those results gave managers a significant jumpstart on population increase, and soon there was an abundance of eggs.
With the growing inventory, managers turned to the parent condors for raising the chicks. As the success rate of this artificial incubation practice increased, soon there weren’t enough parents to raise the hatched babies. The challenge was how to raise the chicks so that the birds would not see the human trainers and imprint on them, thereby becoming dependent. The managers needed a way to teach and train the baby birds how to behave like condors in the wild. It was at this point that Wallace took his knowledge of an innovative technique that had been tried on other bird species—using puppets as surrogates—and proposed developing the same method with condors.
Wallace already knew that hand puppets had been used with some success with peregrine falcons and was curious to see if the same technique could be used to raise the more social baby California condors.
Wallace built his first bird puppet while auditing an art class at the University of Wisconsin. He made the puppet in the image of an Andean condor using latex and Plasticine; he developed the process and created the mold as well as the prototype. This early model, with slight modification, is still being used today to raise baby condors.
Wallace’s first test release group was 11 young Andean condors that he raised by using his puppet as a surrogate. He shipped the birds to the Atacama Desert in northern Peru where he finished raising them and then released them into a condor habitat. This successful release was the first indication that managers would be able to work with the sociality of the species and still get what Wallace would describe as a “good bird,” or one that was able to be in the wild and survive within its group. Wallace conducted another test with Andean condors, this time in California. In 1988, thirteen Andean condor females were released producing protocols on which future California condor releases would be based.
“It’s about teaching young birds how to behave in the wild, in essence how to be condors,” said Wallace. “When humans use puppets to raise baby chicks, we are basically serving as conduits to help the birds get from a creature that doesn’t know how to be itself to one that is able to secure his or her status in the hierarchy of the condor species.”
As the number of captive bred condors grew, the need for their release grew as well. Looking to the success of the Andean condor release and with the approval from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, in 1992 the reintroduction of the California condor into the wild began.
Today there are over 400 birds, and the species is reclassified with the more optimistic “Critically Endangered” allocation on the IUCN list. Wallace’s introduction of puppets as surrogate parents and the methods, techniques, protocols and procedures that he established have shown to be incredibly successful, certainly more so than he anticipated when he first began working with the problem of condor extinction nearly 35 years ago.
“People often ask me, ‘Why have you been doing this for so long?’ I tell them that these birds are fascinating and are always doing something new, which keeps me interested and motivated to continue with helping species preservation.”
“We as humans were responsible for the near extinction of the California condor,” said Wallace. “I feel we have a responsibility to see the recovery of the species to a sustainable level in the end. We caused the problem, so we should fix it.”