The California Condor Soars Back from Near Extinction 

Dating back to the Ice Age, the condor is making an exciting return.

Aug 11, 2020

The great California condor is making a comeback. After facing near extinction, the largest land bird in North America has recently been spotted soaring high over its native habitat.

With a wingspan of nine and a half feet and weighing up to 25 pounds, this huge bird’s habitat once ranged from the coast of California to Florida, and from northern Mexico up to western Canada.

It may have been 50 years since the condor has been seen in these parts, but its origin is ancient. Some 40,000 years ago, according to the National Park Service, this scavenging bird would feed on mammoths and giant sloths. The California condor survived the last major glacial age, outliving many ancient species, and it continued to thrive up till the 20th  century. 

According to the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), the bird was officially added to the endangered species list in 1967. The condors were decimated by eating carrion that contained spent ammunition from hunters. The tiny fragments of lead bullets poisoned the birds until, in 1982, just 25 were left. Other dangers to the condor include the loss of habitat, pollution, and powerlines.

The USFWS started a recovery program in 1979 but when the numbers dwindled to such a dangerously low level that they captured the remaining condors to protect and breed them. The first chicks of these captive birds were released over 30 years ago. They are all numbered and are being followed by biologists using a GPS system.

The program has been so successful, the 1,000th chick hatched in 2019. The chick, whose parents were both born in captivity, was discovered by researchers who had to rappel off a cliff to see it.

In the last seven years, condors have been located gracefully flying over Sequoia National Park, one of their original habitats. And in late May, according to a USFWS press release, condors were spotted perched atop cliffs and in the towering trees of the park. 

Condors nest in hollowed treetops of the giant sequoia and on cave floors high up in cliffs. The pairs are monogamous and hatch one chick approximately every two years. According to the press release there is now a wild flock totaling 340 birds and they are expanding their range along the coast and into Arizona, Utah, and Baja California in Mexico. 

Wildlife biologist Laura McMahon, who works in the recovery program said, “As biologists, we are excited to see condors continue to expand back into their historic range. And also for the opportunity to engage with the local communities to share what they can do to contribute to the recovery of California condors, and inform them about threats to these birds.” 

Now the real work at hand is to educate the public. Many hunters have switched to copper bullets in order to protect the condor from lead poisoning. And in 2011, a dangerous power line that was in the way of their flight path was buried underground.

Citizens, government agencies, biologists, and conservationists are working together to ensure the future of the California condor. It is a thrill to watch the large shadow of this ancient bird circling way above, flying at heights of 15,000 feet.

And when you do see the bird, there is a certain feeling of excitement and connection to a bygone world. Since they live up to 75 years, that same bird flying way up high may very well be spotted by your grandchildren.

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NICOLE NATHAN BEM, CONTRIBUTOR
Nicole is an editor, blogger and author who has recently left her urban life in order to be more connected with nature. In her spare time, she’s outdoors hiking in the forest, mountain biking or tending to her new permaculture garden.