Posted on: July 23, 2019 at 8:52 pm
Last updated: August 3, 2019 at 12:49 pm

Labeled “critically endangered” and just one step from total extinction in 1982, the California condors (Gymnogyps californianus) are back to stay and are thriving as the largest birds and king raptors of North America. According to reports from the International Union for Conservation of nature, only 22 of these majestic birds (close cousins of vultures) were remaining in existence that year. They were just shy of becoming “birds of the past.”  Earlier this year, within the cliffs of Utah’s Zion National Park, another baby condor was hatched, bringing their rebounding numbers to 1000 chicks. 

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This is something to celebrate for Native North Americans as well. The condor is a highly revered bird which symbolizes power [1]. With a wingspan of about 9.5ft, a soar altitude of 15,000 feet and a maximum weight of about 25lbs, the “thunderbirds” of North America are spiritually believed to bring thunder to the sky by the flapping of their large wings [1].

Feeding only on carrion (dead animal carcasses) for survival, the condor may not be the prettiest bird in existence, but it makes up for its disadvantaged looks with powerful spiritual symbolism to the people that revere them.

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Several factors lead to the endangering of this unique species [2]. Habitat destruction (caused by human invasion and micro-trash infiltration), uncontrolled hunting, pollution, and lead poisoning were causing the birds to drop dead all over the world. Lead poisoning was a serious problem because these birds depend solely on the flesh from decaying animals to survive, some of which would be killed by lead bullets from hunters. 

The California Condor Recovery Program was established in 1987 to protect the few remaining Aves from extinction. As they bred and multiplied, the birds were slowly reintroduced to the wild starting from the 1990s. The oldest bird in existence is currently 24 years old, but biologists estimate that condors have a lifespan of almost 70 years, classifying them as one of the longest-living bird species in the world. 

Baby number 1000

The parents of chick number 1000 were identified as condor 409 (mother) and condor 523 (father) by biologists at Zion National Park. They were both born and bred in captivity and eventually released into the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument at Arizona. California condors are secretive birds that prefer to lay their eggs and nurture their hatchlings deep within rocky cliffs. 

Speaking to The Guardian, Janice Stroud-Settles, a wildlife biologist at Zion National Park in Utah explained the events surrounding the birth of the 1000th chick of power [3]. California condors are like lovebirds, sticking to one mate for life and dealing with heartbreak if their partner dies. Condor 409 previously had two other chicks but they didn’t survive. Her first mate died of lead poisoning and her first chick died from a premature attempt at fledging, an issue that has claimed the lives of many of other condor chicks, according to researchers. She was too heartbroken to cater for the second chick, and it died as well.

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“Now that she’s re-coupled with a new mate, we’re hoping this chick will successfully fledge once it’s old enough to fly – sometime in the fall,” said Stroud-Settles.

In May this year, deep within the high cliffs of the Zion Park and the Grand Canyon, the 1000th chick was finally hatched, marking a new era for California condors all around the world. According to Stroud-Settles, they noticed that the chick’s parents were taking turns to scavenge for food instead of going out together. 

“We suspected that they’d hatched a new chick. When we confirmed it … it was just this feeling of overwhelming joy,” she said.

Back to stay for good

For now, the sex of the new chick cannot be determined without a blood test. According to Tim Hauck, Condor Program Manager at The Peregrine Fund, the May-hatched nursling would begin to fledge in November. This would make it easier to gain access to the chick and get a blood sample.

“Condors are one of the very unique species of birds in North America and in the world, for that matter. They’re extremely personable,” Hauck said to NPR [4]. “They’ll have individual personalities. And as biologists, we really get to know these birds on a one-to-one level, so they end up meaning quite a bit to us, and we get quite attached.”

Hauck says that there are currently more than 500 California condors in the world, including those in captivity. Over 300 of these birds are making their homes in California.

“We’re seeing more chicks born in the wild than we ever have before,” Hauck told NPR’s Scott Simon. “And that’s just a step towards success for the condor and achieving a sustainable population. Here’s to seeing that population increase every year.”

  1. Admin. California Condor. San Diego Zoo. https://animals.sandiegozoo.org/animals/california-condor. Retrieved 22-07-19 
  2. Katz, Brigit. The California Condor Nearly Went Extinct. Now, the 1000th Chick of a Recovery Program Has Hatched. Smithsonian. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/california-condor-nearly-went-extinct-now-1000th-chick-recovery-program-has-hatched-180972698/. Retrieved 22-07-19
  3. Staff writer. California condor births mark soaring comeback after numbers dwindled to 22. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jul/17/overwhelming-joy-birth-of-california-condor-chicks-marks-soaring-comeback. Retrieved 22-07-19
  4. Cronin & Gray. Once Nearly Dead As The Dodo, California Condor Comeback Reaches 1,000 Chicks. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2019/07/21/743901094/once-nearly-dead-as-the-dodo-california-condor-comeback-reaches-1-000-chicks. Retrieved 22-07-19
  5. Admin. California Condor. All about Birds. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/California_Condor/overview. Retrieved 22-07-19
  6. International Union for Conservation of Nature. https://www.iucn.org/. Retrieved 22-07-19
  7. Admin. The Impact of Micro-Trash. Keep Nature Wild. https://keepnaturewild.com/blogs/journal/the-impact-of-micro-trash. Retrieved 22-07-19
  8. Admin. California Condor Recovery Program. U.S Fish and Wildlife Services. https://www.fws.gov/cno/es/CalCondor/Condor.cfm. Retrieved 22-07-19

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