For your average Joe bird, hatching an egg doesn't make the news. But when a pair of California Condors in Zion National Park welcomed a chick to their 1,000-foot-high nest cavity, biologists and reporters alike celebrated a milestone. After a 35-year conservation effort, it is the first record of a California Condor born in the wild in Utah. The hatching, the 47th recorded in the wild since 2002, shows a promising expansion of the critically endangered bird's range.
So how did the California Condor population get to this point?
Meet the condor
If you see a California Condor, you'll know it. With a sweeping nine-foot wingspan, it is the largest bird in North America. Members of the vulture family, condors have black plumage, distinctive white patches beneath their wings, and featherless, reddish heads. They spend their days hitching rides on thermal air currents and soaring over large distances, searching for carrion (that's the official word for decaying dead animal flesh) to eat. Condors mate for life and can live 60 years.
Where do they live?
Thousands of years ago, California Condors had a vast range, including Florida and New York as well as the West. By the time settlers arrived, the condor's range had shrunk, possibly due to diminished food sources (read: fewer massive, roaming herds of mammals), but they still ranged across western North America from British Columbia to Baja California. Reintroduced condors live only in the mountains of southern and central California, Baja California, Arizona, and Utah.
What drove their numbers down?
During the 20th century, a deadly combination of habitat loss, DDT contamination, hunting, and lead poisoning all but wiped out the species. By 1982, there were only 22 California Condors left.
What are the current threats to the condor population?
Condors often accidentally ingest fragments of lead bullets while eating animals, such as deer and coyotes, that have been shot. The lead is absorbed into the bloodstream, causing lead poisoning. Each year, researchers trap reintroduced condors in order to check lead levels in the blood. If the levels are too high, the condors undergo chelation therapy—a medical procedure that removes heavy metals from the body. Although California banned the use of lead ammunition within the California Condor's range in 2007, and Arizona distributes non-lead ammunition to hunters for free, lead poisoning remains a significant threat to wild condors—particularly during and immediately after the deer-hunting season. In 2013, in an effort to further protect condors, Audubon California spearheaded a succesful campaign to phase out lead ammunition throughout the entire state by 2019.
What have conservation efforts entailed?
By 1987, the population of California Condors had risen by just five birds, so all 27 were brought into captivity. The San Diego Zoo, Los Angeles Zoo, Oregon Zoo, and the Peregrine Fund, a non-profit organization dedicated to saving birds of prey, initiated an intensive captive breeding program. The first captive-bred condor was released in Ventura County, California in 1992, and four additional release sites—two in California, one in Arizona, and one in Baja California—have since been added. Condors began breeding in the wild again in 2002.
How many are there now?
As of June 2014, there are 439 California Condors, 225 of which live in the wild. Rebuilding the condor population is extremely difficult, because the birds are notoriously late bloomers. Chicks stay in the nest for up to six months (the longest fledging period of any North American bird), are dependent on their parents for up to a year, and do not breed until they're 6-8 years old. Females lay a single egg every one or two years. The California Condor population is growing, but it is still essentially dependent on the efforts of conservationists—the species remains Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List.
How is the newest baby condor doing?
Biologists will continue to monitor the chick's development in the coming months, but for its protection, they are keeping mum about the exact location of the nest.