Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the Endangered Species Act: California Condor Still Critically Endangered

The California Condor, like the Bald Eagle described in the May-June issue of The Quail, was placed on the endangered species list almost half a century ago. But unlike the Bald Eagle, the condor is far from recovered.

With a wingspan of nearly 10 feet and weighing up to 25 pounds, the California Condor is the largest flying bird in North America. In prehistoric times, condors were widespread across the American West. The explorers Lewis and Clark observed them at the mouth of the Columbia River in 1806. Lewis sketched a condor in his journal and wrote: “Shannon and Labuishe brought me one of the large carrion Crow or Buzza[r]ds of the Columbia …” 

By the 1960s, however, the California Condor was found in only a few restricted areas in California. In 1967 it was placed on the endangered species list.

Natural History

California Condors are nearly all black, with white patches on the underside of their wings. Their heads are truly bald, unlike the heads of Bald Eagles, which are covered in white feathers. On young birds, the skin on the head is gray; on adult birds, the skin color ranges from yellow to bright red, depending on the birds’ emotional state—during breeding season, for example, the skin can become an intense orange or red. The colors are believed to communicate emotions to other condors. Condors can live up to 60 years in the wild. They mate for life and begin breeding by about seven years of age. Each pair produces only one egg every other year. When the egg fails to hatch or is lost to predation, they can produce a second egg that same year. Eggs generally hatch after two months, and chicks fledge five or six months later. The young condors often remain with the parents until the next breeding season.

These huge birds are scavengers that feed primarily on the carcasses of large animals such as deer, cattle, sheep, and even marine mammals, although they are known to eat dead rodents, rabbits, and fish as well.

Condors don’t migrate, but they do travel great distances in search of food—as much as 150 miles in a day. For habitat, they need large remote areas that include open grasslands and oak savannah. They roost and nest on cliffs and in tall trees near mountains, canyons, and even coastal headlands.

Conservation Status

Five hundred years ago, condors were found throughout the American Southwest and along the West Coast. Because of habitat loss, resource development, shooting, and lead poisoning, the population declined rapidly in the 20th century. By 1985, only nine condors remained in the wild. Faced with this crisis, researchers captured all nine condors and began a captive breeding program, a drastic move that was highly controversial. Those who opposed this action believed that:

  • protecting habitat and educating hunters and ranchers would be a better use of the funds;
  • captive-bred condors would not succeed when released into the wild; and
  • captive-bred condors would no longer be real condors. (“If you take the condor out of the wild, you take the wild out of the condor.”)

Proponents of captive breeding believed that:

  • protecting habitat is so difficult ecologically and politically that condors would go extinct before habitat protection could be achieved; and
  • science and technology offered the only practical way to save the condor.

Some chapters of the National Audubon Society opposed the captive breeding program. The NAS also opposed captive breeding, but given the precarious plight of the California Condor, the NAS passed a resolution in 1977 endorsing captive breeding.

Recovery

The program to recover the condor began in earnest on April 19, 1987, when the last wild bird was captured; at that point, only 22 California Condors were left in the world, all in captivity at the San Diego Wild Animal Park and the Los Angeles Zoo. 

In what would become the most costly endangered species recovery program, over $35 million were spent to increase the population of condors to over 400, with 179 of those living in captivity as of May 2012. The wild birds live in Pinnacles National Park, Big Sur, and Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge in California, the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona (just south of the Grand Canyon), and a site in Baja California, Mexico.

While this success is encouraging, full recovery is far from guaranteed. Condors continue to face threats from power lines, wind power installations, and habitat loss from development. Worst of all, wild condors continue to die from poisoning by eating carcasses of large animals killed by hunters who use lead bullets. California has passed legislation prohibiting the use of lead bullets within the condor’s range in the state. 

The Oregon Zoo in Portland now operates a California Condor breeding facility in Clackamas County, but their plans to release condors in suitable habitat in southern Oregon are on hold because there are no laws anywhere in Oregon that prohibit the use of lead bullets. Enactment of such prohibitions is considered highly unlikely in the foreseeable future. If you want to experience the sight of a soaring California Condor like Lewis and Clark saw near the Columbia River, your best bet is to travel to Big Sur on the California coast or the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

Learn more about the California Condor

In Condor Country by David Darlington (UO Science Library # QL 696 .F33 D37 1991) 

National Audubon Society: http://birds.audubon.org/species/calcon

Oregon Zoo: http://www.oregonzoo.org/conserve/species-recovery-and-conservation/california-condors

Oregon Field Guide: http://www.opb.org/television/video/condors-and-lead-bullets/