What Happened to the Condors
A Downward Spiral to Near Extinction
The California condorthe largest
land bird in North Americais an endangered species.
Its shrinking population has been directly linked to
the growth and expansion of the human population, from
being shot for their feathers to colliding with man-made
structures such as power poles.
However, the major cause of the birds
ultimate decline to near extinction is unintentional
lead poisoning: condors feed on the remains of deer
and other wildlife shot with lead bullets, and in the
process, consume and digest the bullet fragments which
are highly toxic to them. Helping to solve this problem,
the army is reviewing conversion to new high-tech bullets
that are non-toxic to scavengers like the condors. Hopefully,
hunters will convert to the new bullets as well.
In the meantime, condor reintroduction
managers provide food for free-flying condors they are
reintroducing into the wild. This reduces the condors
exposure to possible lead poisoning.
Recovery and Reintroduction
While an estimated 600 condors existed
in the wild in 1890, by 1982 the number had plummeted
to 22. With concern for this alarming trend, the California
Condor Recovery Program had been established in 1975
under the direction of the USFWS.
In an effort to prevent extinction
of the species, a captive breeding program was begun
in 1982 with removal of a chick from the wild to be
hand raised. Ultimately, when the limited population
dropped to only one breeding pair and a few individuals,
the last of the free-flying condors were taken into
captivity between 1985 and 1987.
The goal of the captive breeding program
is to establish two wild populations of 150 individuals,
each with at least 15 breeding pairs. Condor chicks
have been bred and reared at the San Diego Zoo and Wild
Animal Park, the Los Angeles Zoo and the Oregon Zoo.
The last condor to be brought into captivity, AC9 (for
adult condor #9) has been released back to the wild
in an ceremony highlighted by a Chumash Indian blessing.
Condors have been significant to many Native American
When ready, the birds bred and hatched
in the zoos are taken to outdoor pens in remote sites
where they are introduced to their native habitat and
prepared for release into the wild. In California, the
Ventana Wilderness Society manages release sites at
Big Sur and at the Pinnacles National Monument in California.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service manages sites near
Santa Barbara, California, and the San Diego Zoo manages
a site in Baja California in the Sierra San Pedro Matir.
The Peregrine Fund manages a site at the Vermillion
Cliffs near the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
A major milestone in the recovery
and reintroduction program was the wild hatching of
condor chicks beginning in 2002 the first in 18
years to be conceived, incubated, and hatched in the
wild. Condor biologists are now optimistic that chicks
will continue to fledge and be reared in the wild.