Condor #87 gets wet in Pipe Creek along the Tonto Trail in Grand Canyon National Park.
NPS Photo by Michael Quinn
Why did Condor Numbers Decline?
Today, the California condor is regarded as one of the rarest birds in the world. In Pleistocene times, condors ranged from Canada to Mexico, across the southern United States to Florida, and north on the east coast to New York. During that period, condors were a common resident of the Grand Canyon judging by bones, feathers and eggshells found in caves where they once nested. A dramatic range reduction occurred about 10,000 years ago, coinciding with the late Pleistocene extinction of large mammals such as mastodons, giant ground sloths, camels, and sabre tooth cats that condors fed on.
By the time Europeans arrived in western North America, condors had retreated to a stronghold along the Pacific coast from British Columbia to Baja California. The birds managed to maintain a strong population until shooting, egg collecting, poisoning by cyanide traps set for coyotes, power line collisions, general habitat degradation, and especially lead poisoning began to take a heavy toll. Lead poisoning from ingesting fragments of lead ammunition in the carcasses and gut piles they feed on remains the greatest threat to California condors today
From the 1880s to 1924, there were scattered reports of condors in Arizona. But by the late 1930s, no condors remained outside of California and by 1982, the total population had dwindled to just 22 birds. Extinction loomed
What's Being Done to Save the Condor?
As a result of the continued downward spiral of the condor population, one of the longest wildlife recovery efforts ever attempted began. The California condor was placed on the federal endangered species list in 1967. Critical habitat was identified and mortality factors were studied.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began a captive breeding program in 1983, teaming with the Los Angeles Zoo and the San Diego Wild Animal Park. (Additional breeding facilities were added later at The Peregrine Fund's World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho and at the Oregon Zoo in Portland, Oregon.) But in the wild, condor numbers continued to decline until by 1985 only nine wild birds remained
A controversial decision was made to bring all remaining condors into captivity, and the last wild bird was captured on April 19, 1987. All hope for recovery was now placed on the captive breeding program and the task was formidable.
Condors aren't capable of reproducing until they are about six years old and once a pair mate, only a single egg will normally be produced every year or two. Because of these factors, recruitment into the population is very low. To offset this, captive breeding techniques were developed in which eggs are removed as they are laid, usually causing the captive condors to lay a second and sometimes a third egg.
The extra eggs are incubated and the chicks are raised by caretakers using a hand puppet shaped like a condor head. The puppet prevents the young condors from imprinting on people, a phenomenon in which a bird will identify more with humans than its own species. Some condor chicks are also allowed to be raised by their parent birds. As a result, the captive condor population increased dramatically from 27 birds in 1987 to the 177 or so that are currently being held
Best of all, captive bred condors were being released back into the wild in California beginning in January 1992. Today, more than 127 condors fly free in the state of California, from the Ventana wilderness and Pinnacles National Monument down to the Sespe Condor Refuge and Los Padres National Forest north of Los Angeles.
In December of 1996, six young captive-bred condors were released into the wild in Arizona by The Peregrine Fund from a site in the Vermilion Cliffs, 30 miles north of Grand Canyon National Park. For the first time since 1924, condors were flying free in Arizona skies. Subsequent releases have occurred every year since then.
In October of 1992, three condors were released into the wild on the Baja peninsula of Mexico. It was the first flight of California condors there since 1937.
The world total of California condors today is around 400, more than half of which are in the wild. Although still endangered and facing ongoing challenges such as lead poisoning, they've come a long way since numbering just 22 in 1982
California Condors Have Adapted Well to This Area
As of April 2013, 73 condors soar over northern Arizona and southern Utah. Many of them frequent Grand Canyon, especially during the summer. They come from all four captive breeding locations. But more importantly, a number of them come from wild nest caves in and around the Grand Canyon.
The first California condor chick to fledge in the wild anywhere since 1982 was seen leaving its nest cave deep in the Grand Canyon on November 5, 2003. Unfortunately this youngster died in March of 2005, apparently of starvation. But his parents have bred successfully in the same nest cave twice since then. In fact, as of this writing in April of 2013, there are a total of seven wild-bred condors flying free in Arizona and Utah. There are also five active nest caves in the Grand Canyon and the Vermilion Cliffs right now. For updated information, read our latest NOTES FROM THE FIELD, Condor Update.
If You See a Condor
California condors, being curious, are attracted to human activity. If you see a perched condor, do not approach it or offer it food. If it is perched close to people in a spot where they can reach it, please report the situation to park staff immediately.
If you see a condor flying or perched at a safe distance, enjoy this remarkable sight! If it is close enough to read the numbered tag, which nearly all the condors wear, you can look up more information about your particular condor in the CONDOR TAG CHART, which may be downloaded from the most recent Condor Update.
If you haven't yet seen a condor in the wild, keep on the lookout from your next Grand Canyon viewpoint. You may appreciate the majestic scenery of Grand Canyon all the more for knowing that it provides important habitat for one of the world's most majestic-and most endangered-birds.