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Condor on the Wing

Though it remains a critically endangered species, the California Condor achieved an important milestone in 2015. As reported by AP writer Keith Ridler, the number of wild condor chicks that successfully fledged last year exceeded the number of wild condor that died, resulting in a net gain in the wild condor population for the first time in decades. The successful year brings the total number of living California Condor to at least 425 individuals, a little more than half of them living in the wild and the rest remaining in captivity as part of the Condor Recovery Plan.

Though the California Condor and their ancestors frequented most of North America before the arrival of human beings on the continent (the fossil record shows that its historic range extended from the Pacific to the Atlantic coasts), the arrival of the last Ice Age and the demise of large mammal species slowly confined the condor to the western United States, where it could find carcasses of elk, bison, moose, horses, deer, and other herbivores to feed on. Hunting, poaching, lead poisoning, habitat loss, electric power line collisions, and DDT pollution inexorably reduced their numbers until the 1980s, when no more than 27 condor remained alive in North America. The California Condor, which had continually colonized North America since the Pleistocene, which began approximately 1.64 million years ago, faced imminent extinction, and due to a low reproduction rate (condors produce only one chick every two years in the wild), they would likely not have survived into the 21st century.

Thankfully, under the auspices of the California Condor Recovery Plan, conservationists captured all remaining wild condors and began a captive breeding and reintroduction program that has led to the steady increase of the condor population. Because of this once controversial program, wild California Condor now soar above the Grand Canyon in Arizona, Zion National Park in Utah, Baja California in Mexico, Big Sur on the California coast, and the Sierras in eastern California. More important than simply reinhabitting its historic territory, the condor re-introduced in the wild have successfully nested and raised chicks in most of those locations and appear to be extending their ranges beyond them, as well.

Condors appear a bit ungainly on land, but they never fail to impress when aloft. Their wingspan stretches to nearly 10 feet—the largest span of any North American species—and only a few bird species (the Trumpeter Swan, White Pelican, and Whooping Crane) exceed them in body weight, body length, or both. So large are California Condor, in fact, that they’re often mistaken for small planes when seen floating high above from ground level. As the day warms and air drafts form, the California Condor takes to the skies. They can soar up to 15,000 feet, glide along at up to 55 miles an hour, stay aloft for hours at a time, and cover as many as 100 square miles a day in their search for food.

Unfortunately, I haven’t seen a condor in several years now, but on a trip down the California coast in 2009, I photographed “Number 12” as he and ten or more other Condor flew repeatedly and effortlessly up and down the coast with hardly a wingbeat. An experience I’m not likely to forget.

In addition to the articles cited above, you can read more about the California Condor by visiting the websites of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, California Parks, the Defenders of Wildlife, Grand Canyon National Park, National Geographic, and the Peregrine Fund, which has been instrumental in the Condor’s recovery and reintroduction program.