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What Happened to the Condors

A Downward Spiral to Near Extinction

The California condor—the largest land bird in North America—is 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 bird’s 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 condor’s 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 groups.

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.



Timeline of Condor Recovery

1890 Estimated population=600
1967 Listed as endangered under the Federal Endangered Species Act.
1975 California Condor Recovery Program established
1982 Population=22: Captive breeding program begun
1982 First captive bred condor born
1987 Last wild-born condor, AC9, brought into captivity
2000 AC8 becomes first wild-born condor to be released back to the wild. Estimated to be more than 40 years old, and beyond breeding age, she becomes a mentor for newly released juveniles.
2002 AC9 released back to the wild. Age 22 years. Now breeding in the wild.
2002 April: first chick born in the wild in 18 years