Over the past 16+ years of working with Defenders of Wildlife, I have had the privilege of advancing conservation efforts for a wide variety of species here in the Golden State: from the diminutive San Joaquin kit fox to the fabled gray wolf, the charismatic burrowing owl to the secretive Pacific fisher. But one of the most iconic and superlative among them all is the California condor, North America’s largest land-based bird with an impressive wingspan of nearly 10 feet. I recently had the unique opportunity to go condor spotting along the rugged Big Sur Coast with Jeff Corwin to film a segment for Defenders’ new television series, Wildlife Nation.
The story of the California condor is one of hope—and one that demonstrates that it truly takes a village to save a species from disappearing forever. The species’ population drastically declined to less than two dozen individuals left in the entire world by the early 1980s, hanging on to existence in the coastal mountains of southern California, in just a fraction of their historical range. The controversial decision was made to capture the remaining free-flying birds in a last-ditch effort to maintain as much genetic diversity as possible and begin a captive breeding program. The species was declared extinct in the wild when the remaining individuals were brought into captivity in April 1987.
These birds that had been around since the late Pleistocene Era 40,000 years ago were suddenly gone from Western skies.
Condors were driven to the edge of complete extinction by many different factors over the past few centuries. These include intentional shooting and poisoning, egg collecting, decline of large prey and habitat loss. More recently, condors have suffered the ill effects of eggshell thinning from legacy effects of DDT and other contaminants found in wild coastal food sources, while some have been electrocuted when their massive wings come into contact with power poles and lines. Ingestion of microtrash, including items like bottle caps, nuts, bolts, rags and small bits of wire and glass, have been particularly harmful to nestlings in the southern California flock. But today, the most critical threat to condors is lead poisoning from spent ammunition.
Despite these obstacles—and thanks to the successful captive breeding program—the California condor population has grown from just a few dozen individuals in the entire world to nearly 500 now, with a majority of those flying freely in southern California, our Central Coast, Baja Mexico, Arizona and Utah.
Several steps have been taken to address ongoing threats to condors. California has instituted a requirement for the use of non-lead ammunition for the take of all animals in an effort to reduce the amount of lead available in potential prey of condors. There are clean-ups in southern and coastal parts of the state to limit the amount of microtrash on the public lands that condors frequently use for foraging. And with the need for renewable energy sources to reduce carbon emissions ramping up, wind energy companies are currently preparing a Condor Conservation Plan with proactive measures to reduce potential conflicts with condors for 23 wind projects totaling 1,300 wind turbines in the Tehachapi Wind Resource Area of Kern County, California.
There are also plans to reintroduce the “magnificent thunderbird” back to the ancestral lands of the Yurok people and Redwoods National Park in northwestern California within the next year. This will return these giant birds, which play an important role in many Native American cultures, farther north into the species’ historical territory than they’ve ever been in contemporary times. This will be a stepping-stone for condors to eventually expand back into their historical range in the Pacific Northwest, where they were noted along the Columbia River in Lewis and Clark’s expedition journal in the early 19th Century.
It truly does take a village to save a species from extinction. Many partners—from government agencies, nonprofit organizations, wildlife biologists and researchers, field crews and captive breeding facilities at multiple zoos—are all working together to ensure that this iconic species not only survives but thrives for generations to come. To think that there were less than 30 known California condors in the world just a few decades ago to hundreds soaring our Western skies today is inspiring. If that’s not a story of hope, I don’t know what is. I’m proud to have played a small part in this great American wildlife success story, and to be able to share it with readers like you and the viewers of Wildlife Nation.