The Recovery of the California Condor

(Photo © Daniel Sachse/The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology)
The California Condor is the largest bird in North America. It can weigh nearly 22 pounds, and have a wingspan of over nine feet (277 cm), perfect for soaring through the air.  Condors age very well, and can live for more than 60 years. The oldest condor is 49 and still breeding successfully! Adult condors are black with big white patches under their wings, and if you are lucky enough to spot one, it will probably also sport a numbered identification tag.


(Photo © Mark Schocken/The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology)
You see, the California Condor is an endangered bird. This means it has a chance of going completely extinct. In fact, in 1980 there were only 22 of these spectacular birds left! The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to capture all the remaining condors and breed them in captivity, in the hopes that they would make a comeback in a protected, secure environment.


(Photo © Jay Langford/The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology)
By 1987, all 27 remaining condors were captured. Although it was a controversial move to breed the birds in captivity, the program had huge success. Condors usually only lay one egg every year or two, but with the help of breeding techniques they laid up to three eggs per year. Human caretakers worked alongside the condor parents to raise chicks. The humans used hand puppets to ensure minimal human interaction!


Beginning in January of 1992, condors were reintroduced to California. Today, there are approximately 430 California Condors in the world, and roughly half of them live in the wild. They are still one of the rarest birds in the world.

(Photo © Chuck Burt/The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

A major threat to condors today is lead poisoning. This is usually the result of accidentally eating ammunition fragments in the carcasses of animals that humans have hunted. Luckily, important steps have been taken to eliminate lead-based ammunition. Additionally, conservation groups work to monitor and treat the birds, and supply lead-free carcasses for the wild birds to scavenge.

(Photo © Jeff Culler/The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology)
Scavenge, you say? Scavenging means that the condor doesn’t hunt, it eats animals that are already dead. California Condors will fly over 150 miles in search of carcasses to eat, looking for groups of other scavengers who have already found the meal. They scare off any smaller species, but are happy to eat alongside other condors. The condor’s baldness is an advantage. If they had feathers on their heads, cleaning up after dinner would be a lot more difficult!
(Photo © Nigel Voaden/The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology)


The Lab of Ornithology has a CondorCam so you can observe these amazing birds anytime. Check out the livestream or our favorite clips!

~Brigid Lucey

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