This big bird’s mottled bare head not only changes color depending on its state of mind—a deep red when mating and lighter when relaxing—it also makes it easier to keep clean. And cleanliness is important when you’re a scavenger and every meal consists of digging your powerful beak into decaying flesh. As unappetizing as this may seem to us, scavengers are vital to ecosystems as nature’s cleaning crews.

From the sky, North America’s largest bird casts an enormous shadow over the West’s rugged landscape. Spreading its nearly 10-foot wingspan, feathers flared, this Pleistocene-era giant catches thermals off steep cliffs that propel it as many as 150 miles a day in search of food.

Unfortunately, condors too often eat the carcasses of animals that have been shot with lead bullets—which splinter into hundreds of tiny pieces on impact—or the lead-contaminated remains that hunters leave behind. Lead poisoning is now the biggest threat facing California condors, according to numerous scientific studies.

Once dominating the western skies—and even flying as far as New York and Florida—the California condor tottered on the verge of extinction just 35 years ago. Decimated from poisoning, poaching, electrocution and habitat loss, only 23 birds survived. 

Biologists captured them in a last-ditch effort to preserve the species by breeding them in captivity for later release into the wild. Thankfully, it worked. Today, under the protection of the Endangered Species Act, the wild California condor is soaring back with a population of 446 flying the skies over California, Arizona, Utah and Baja California. And they may soon soar again in the northernmost portion of their historical range at a new release site under consideration near the California-Oregon border—giving us more bald beauties to behold.

–Katherine Powell

Making a Difference

California condors are more frequently exposed to and sickened by lead contamination than other wildlife because they feed exclusively on dead animals. But lead shot is still a serious problem that also harms other species, including golden eagles, hawks, ravens, turkey vultures and grizzly bears. Over the last decade, Defenders worked with the California state legislature to phase out lead ammunition statewide by 2019 and continues to advocate for an end to lead ammunition on all public lands, particularly national wildlife refuges. Unfortunately, on his first day as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke revoked the Obama administration order to expand the use of nontoxic ammunition on national wildlife refuges.

Celebrate the California condor on International Vulture Awareness Day September 2.


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