This week, officials with the National Park Service confirmed what they had been suspecting for several weeks; a pair of California Condors that had nested in the park had finally hatched an egg. The news is exciting for the species. They not only came close to total extinction-within less than 2 dozen of the animals alive in total-but actually went extinct in the wild for a time. Park officials and environmentalists are hoping that the recent hatch will be just one more positive event in this species road to recovery in the area.
The California Condor’s Extinction
California Condors were once a common sight across the Southwest United States. A century ago, they could be found from Washington all the way south through Mexico. Their terriroty also stretched into inland states like Arizona and Utah. But by 1983, their numbers had dwindled to just 22 birds.
Unlike other American species, like the buffalo, hunting didn’t lead to extinction. Instead, habitat loss and collision with power lines played a large role, as did the destruction and tainting of their food sources. Condors are scavengers, feasting on animal remains hunted by other creatures, died naturally, or, ever since cars have been around, have been hit by vehicles in roadways. The widespread use of lead in bullets has been another major contributor to the species’ demise. The lead taints the meat of deer or other animals and their carcasses left behind. Condors feasting on the remains then die of lead poisoning.
When their numbers reached a record low, wildlife experts with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stepped in and removed the remaining condors from the wild, placing them in zoos with breeding programs. The species was officially extinct in the wild.
Back from the Brink
After the final 22 wild condors were removed from the wild and placed in zoos, experts stepped in to promote breeding in an attempt to save the species. Slowly but surely, breeding began. Reintroduction back into the wild started just a few years later in 1992 and continues through today.
Incredibly enough, some of the condors released today were born wild. California condors can live up to 80 years. Some of the original captured birds were young or even middle aged when they were taken into captivity in the 1980s. These young birds stayed in captivity longer because of their increased shot at healthy breeding. After doing their part to regenerate the species, they are now returning to their natural habitats to continue that job.
Now, more than three decades after they went extinct in the wild, there are more than 300 California condors living in their original habitat, with over a hundred more living in captivity. Many wild condors make their homes in national parks and on other protected lands. At this time, the species mainly resides in the Southwest, though efforts are underway to reintroduce them in the Pacific Northwest as well, a region the bird hasn’t occupied in over a century.
Zion National Park is an ideal habitat for the California condor. The high mountains offer protection and plenty of food. Condors have returned to the area, nesting from April to November and leaving in search of food elsewhere during the winter months.
The pair of condors that parented the most recent hatch have been frequent visitors to the park each year. Their offspring marks the 1,000th chick hatched since the species recovery program was launched in the early 1990s. The egg was first noticed in March after the parents’ behaviors were noted as having changed. It’s likely that the chick hatched sometime in May, and officials first saw it at the end of June. The new chick won’t likely leave the nest and start to fly until November.
Like many other condors passing through Zion, this mating pair chose to build their nest near Angels Landing, high up on a cliff face. Experts hope that this remote location will increase the chick’s chance of surviving to adulthood.
Protecting the California Condor Today
The National Park Service, wildlife experts, and many other local entities have all been working together for years to help protect the California condor.
One major effort that has been underway is to ban the use of lead ammunition in California, the largest area where the condor currently resides. Lead poisoning remains the number one threat to condors in the wild. In fact, the female condor that hatched the most recent chick in Zion was previously paired with a male who died of lead poisoning.
Another effort being taken to protect the species is to analyze how wind power generated through turbines threatens them. Condors that are being bred and raised in captivity and then released are even being trained to avoid power lines.
Visitors to Zion and other natural habitats of the California condor can do their part to protect this unique species by cleaning up garbage, not hunting with lead shot, and by never approaching or disturbing condors or their nests.