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Chasing Condors: Recent Wildlife, Fisheries Science grad Monitors Endangered Bird Species

Posted: November 18, 2015

With a 10-foot wingspan, a mass of 26-pounds and a 60-year lifespan, the California condor is a bird with some swagger. Recent Penn State graduate Alyssa Davidge feels privileged to keep an eye on them as a condor-monitoring technician in southern California.
Alyssa Davidge, who graduated from Penn State in 2014, holding a California condor soon to be released into the wild. (Photo courtesy Great Basin Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Alyssa Davidge, who graduated from Penn State in 2014, holding a California condor soon to be released into the wild. (Photo courtesy Great Basin Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Condors, the largest birds in North America, are vultures that feed on large carcasses. They almost disappeared from the wild in 1987, but were reintroduced to their natural habitat in 1992. Since then, the flock has grown to about 250 wild birds worldwide.

The Stroudsburg native is in charge of monitoring about 70 of those birds in two parks where she is stationed, the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge and the Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge, both in southern California.

In her daily life, the 2014 Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences graduate is responsible for tracking the birds with radio telemetry, checking their health, testing the birds for lead poisoning and caring for the birds yet to be released into the wild.

Her favorite part of the job is getting to see the birds born into captivity fly free for the first time. After she releases them, she tracks them to make sure they are adjusting well to their new environment. “I hike out in the refuge to find the newly released birds, which is often very difficult, but also exciting. I use an UTV, or just go on foot,” she explained.

A common cause of death in the birds is lead poisoning. “Part of my job is managing the conflicts between people and condors. Because the birds exclusively feed on dead animals, they often ingest the fragments of hunters’ lead bullets, which causes severe – and if left unchecked fatal – neurological damage,” she said.

Davidge works for Great Basin Institute, a nonprofit organization that is funded by AmeriCorps. She earns $40 a day and works about 12 hours a day for 10 consecutive days, followed by four days off. With no permanent residence, she camps around California on her off days, living out of her car. When she’s working, she sleeps in a bunkhouse at the wildlife refuge.

Davidge, however, regards the position as an adventure -- a rich life experience that will serve as a stepping stone on the path to landing a good job to start her career.

“It’s tough to get by on $40 a day, especially with student loans. But this is a dream job, and I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else right now!” she said.

Davidge enjoyed her time at Penn State and said her education really prepared her for her current situation. “The skills I learned in my classes, especially the field classes, I use in my work every day,” she explained. “My classwork also introduced me to different types of technology, like GPS navigation and radio telemetry, which I use to track the birds!”

Davidge will finish her second six-month contract with Great Basin Institute in March, and after that hopes to get a job as a condor nest technician at the Santa Barbara Zoo. She also hopes to go to graduate school to pursue a wildlife-related degree in the future.

Her advice to soon-to-be Wildlife and Fisheries grads? “You can’t be geographically limited. Breaking into this field isn’t always easy, but if you want to do something you love, the hard parts are worth it.”