California Condors

A fledgling California condors spreads its wings to absorb the sun's rays.
A fledgling California condors spreads its wings to absorb the sun's rays.

NPS / Gavin Emmons

 

California condors, once widespread across the western United States, are just beginning their comeback into parts of their historic range. The Sierra Nevada mountain range has not seen the distinctive wingspan of a condor for the better part of 30 years, but today that is changing.

California condors (Gymnogyps californianus) were once the dominant figure in the skies of the Sierra Nevada range. With a 9 ½-foot wingspan, these vultures were found in the parks, nesting on cliff faces and in the hollows left behind by fallen branches of giant sequoia trees. They would feed on deceased large mammals like black bears, grizzly bears, and gray wolves. Today, grizzly bears and wolves are no longer found in the parks.

For centuries the California condor thrived here. But in 1967, they were officially designated as “endangered,” a classification that did little good considering the United States was still six years away from signing the vital Endangered Species Act into law. Poaching of feathers and eggs, poisoning from consuming lead ammunition in carcasses, and habitat destruction lead to the rapid downward decline of condors, and by 1987, all remaining wild condors were taken from the wild and relocated to zoos and sanctuaries. This was viewed as a necessary step to safeguard the species from total extinction. Captive breeding and stricter protections resulted in the ability to start releasing condors to the wild in the early 1990s to parts of their former range.

Today, there are 337 condors currently living in the wild, and over 200 are found in the state of California. The California Condor Recovery Program reported over 180 birds (including chicks) in captivity.

 
Three California condors peer into the windows surrounding the Buck Rock U.S. Forest Service Lookout Tower.
Three California condors peer into the windows surrounding the Buck Rock U.S. Forest Service Lookout Tower, Giant Sequoia National Monument.

USFS / Allen Love

Currently, there are no condors nesting in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, but they occasionally fly through the area. Since reintroductions began in the 1990s, sightings of condors have been reported throughout the parks, with a few officially confirmed. In 2014, four condors landed on the railings of the Buck Rock Fire Tower just outside the parks in Sequoia National Forest. And as recently as 2020, four condors were sighted flying over the Giant Forest, two of which landed in mountainous terrain. Through recent years, many more reports of condors, including those being tracked by GPS and radio transmitters, have been made of birds flying very close to or just into these national parks.

 
A pie chart depicting the primary causes of mortality for California condors for the period 1992 through 2019, source US Fish and Wildlife Service. Fifty percent of mortality is attributed to ingestion of lead.
A pie chart depicting the primary causes of mortality for California condors, 1992-2019. This chart illustrates that lead poisoning is the biggest threat facing the successful recovery of the California condor.

Source: California Condor Recovery Program 2019 Annual Population Status, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The recovery of the California condor continues to move forward with success stories across the Western United States. We at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks look forward to a future where visitors can come here and not only see some of the largest trees, deepest canyons, and tallest mountains on earth, but also but also some its largest birds, including one that came back from the very brink of extinction.

Last updated: July 2, 2020

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