The California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) is one of seven New World vulture species. It is not a classically attractive bird. Bold, black feathers cover the creature up to its neck. Its head is bald and blotchy. Its stance is hunched and awkward. But what it lacks in appearances, it makes up for in size. This condor is the largest terrestrial bird in North America with a 9.5-foot wingspan, and it reveals its gracefulness while flying 15,000 feet in the air.
Like other vultures, the California condor is a scavenger and has a unique place in the ecosystem consuming dead carcasses. This species once roamed across the North American continent. But a number of factors challenged the species and their numbers quickly diminished. One major factor was lead poisoning as a result of feeding on carrion that had been shot with lead bullets. Others died from DDT poisoning, habitat loss, and hunting until the population became extinct in the wild.
The plight of the California condor did not go unnoticed. The first list developed by the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966 included this bird. In 1971, the state of California also listed the California condor as endangered and soon a recovery plan was implemented in order to save this species from extinction. By 1987, the last surviving California condors were extracted from the wild. An ambitious captive breeding program started with the Los Angeles Zoo, the San Diego Wild Animal Park, and 26 captive birds.
Breeding California condors takes time and patience. Juveniles don’t reach sexual maturity until six years old, and females only lay one egg per clutch. It took seven years before captive-bred birds became ready for reintroduction to the wild.
The current population is around 410 captive and wild birds with numbers increasing. However, threats to the survival of the species still persist. Lead poisoning remains a problem, as well as, pollution, electrocution from power lines, poaching, and more. The recovery program continues with the goal of creating two geographically distinct populations.
Read the 2016 Annual Population Status Report here.