After more than 35 years of flirting with extinction, the California Condor is finally due for a success story. This week the California Condor Recovery Program announced that 2015 was the first year in decades in which the number of chicks hatched and raised in the wild outweighed the number of wild condor deaths—14 births to 12 deaths: a sign that these pink-faced beauties are on a steady track to recovery.
Condors may be the largest birds in North America, but they were, and still are, scarce. The bird was among the first animals to be protected by the Endangered Species Act in the 1970s—thanks to pressure from Audubon members. But habitat loss, hunting, DDT contamination, and, above all, lead poisoning continued to plague the condor, and ultimately, the species was reduced to a mere 23 individuals by the 1980s.
That’s when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and their partners decided they had to step in. In 1987, all of the remaining wild condors were captured and put into a captive breeding program. A few years later the hatched juveniles were released into the wild in California, Arizona, and Baja California.
Chicks that are hatched in captivity are typically released into the wild before the age of two, says Eric Davis, coordinator for the recovery program. He says that anywhere from 20 to 40 condors are freed each year. But reproduction can be slow among the species—females only lay one egg per nesting season. (Remember this gawky little guy that hatched on camera last spring, thanks to the loving care of two mommies?) In 2008, however, there were more condors soaring through the skies than there were in captivity—a huge landmark for the program. The population is now close to 270, with another 150 or so in captivity.
So what was the turning point for the species? “Chicks that were hatched in captivity and released into the wild are now producing their own wild chicks,” says Davis. “That’s a major milestone in the march to recovery.”
The program is now focusing on managing and maintaining the wild populations so that the endangered birds can become self-sustaining. Unfortunately, lead is still everywhere in their environment. Since condors are notorious carrion scavengers, they often end up ingesting poison while feasting on animals that have been shot. Two of the twelve wild birds that died last year were killed by lead poisoning. To combat this tragic trend, Audubon California is directing a campaign to help the state achieve its goal of going lead-free by 2019.
“Many groups have fought hard to keep the California Condor wild, and we are thrilled to witness a time when the condor’s survival has been improved to this level,” says Andrea Jones, Audubon California’s director of bird conservation. “Just a few weeks ago, I saw seven condors flying free in Big Sur. [It was] such an amazing sight.”