California condors take flight
Science | The endangered species recovery represents a success story
by John Dawson
Posted 4/01/21, 02:21 pm
Once on the brink of extinction, the California condor will soon return to the skies. Officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on March 23 announced plans to release six condors into Redwood National Park in Northern California every year for the next two decades beginning this fall. If successful, the yearly releases could help repopulate skies over parts of California, Oregon, and Nevada that haven’t seen the massive scavengers for decades.
“The California condor is a shining example of how a species can be brought back from the brink of extinction through the power of partnerships,” Fish and Wildlife Service Regional Director Paul Souza said. “Together, we can help recover and conserve this magnificent species for future generations.”
Historically, the California condor soared across the American West from the Pacific Coast to as far east as parts of Colorado and Wyoming. With bald heads and massive 10-foot wingspans, the California condor is North America’s biggest native flying bird. But the vultures barely survived.
Poison, poaching, and habitat destruction led to declining condor populations in the 20th century. By 1967, federal officials placed the bird on the endangered species list. In the 1980s, conservationists began capturing the few remaining wild condors for captive breeding programs. When conservationists caught the last wild condor in 1987, the population had fallen to just 27 specimens.
The path to recovery has been slow for the scavengers. Condors typically live to 60 years or more and are not fast breeders. In 1991, officials with the California Condor Recovery Program were releasing birds back into Southern California. Later, they released more at the Grand Canyon in Arizona and in Baja, Mexico. By 2008, the program reported more birds living in the wild than in captivity. As of March 2020, the San Diego Zoo reported 518 living California condors, including 337 flying freely in the wild.
But scientists warn the successful releases don’t mean that condors are home free. Many of the main causes of their decline still pose risks. According to research published in 2012, 30 percent of condors released into the wild tested positive for lead exposure—one of the chief reasons they first became endangered. The culprit, scientists say, are lead bullet fragments eaten by condors feasting on carcasses left by hunters.