The California Condor's Best Shot at Survival

Swapping to non-lead bullets could help save this bird.

California Condor. Illustration: Emily Poole

This audio story is brought to you by BirdNote, a partner of the National Audubon Society, and is a special excerpt from the recently released anthology BirdNote: Chirps, Quirks, and Stories of 100 Birds from the Popular Public Radio ShowWe'll be sharing selections from the book all April. And remember, you can catch BirdNote episodes daily on public radio stations nationwide.


It’s a lovely day along the California coast, near Big Sur. A steady, cooling breeze from the ocean pushes a strong updraft along the seaside cliffs. Soaring above is one of our continent’s most spectacular birds—and one of its most endangered—the California Condor. 

California Condors are the largest soaring birds in North America, with a wingspan of more than nine feet. During the days of mammoths and saber-toothed cats, they thrived over much of the continent. Two hundred years ago, condors were found from California to southern British Columbia. 

But by 1987, there were only 27 California Condors left, and these were held in captivity, to foster the species’ return to the wild. Today, there are more than 230 free-flying condors living in the wild, and another 200-plus in captivity. Yet the wild population is not self-sustaining.

Unlike many species, the condor’s main survival problem is not habitat loss—it’s high mortality due to lead poisoning. Condors eat animal carcasses, often containing lead from hunters' bullets. But a state law passed in California in 2013 aims to eliminate the use of lead completely by 2019. That’s a change that could enable condors to once again thrive and soar in the Golden State. 



Surf sound and ocean waves recorded by John Kessler. BirdNote's theme music was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.

Producer: John Kessler

Executive Producer: Dominic Black    

Narrator: Mary McCann

Written by Bob Sundstrom

Sources: Birds of North America online; California Condor Recovery Program website.

© 2014 Tune In to Nature.org     August 2017 

BirdNote: Chirps, Quirks, and Stories of 100 Birds from the Popular Radio Show, edited by Ellen Blackstone, illustrations by Emily Poole, Sasquatch Books, 205 pages, $22.95. Buy it online at Powells.

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