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The return of the California condor

In 1982, only 22 California condors (Gymnogyps californianus) were left in the world. The decision to remove the remaining birds from the wild, to begin a breeding program, was controversial at the time. Today there are 394 condors in the world, either in the wild or at breeding centers. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park has played a pivotal role in the successful effort.

The condor, which has been around since the Early Pleistocene, is the only surviving member of the Genus Gymnogyps and has the largest wingspan of any bird in North America (9.5 feet [2.90 m] or longer). The bird has a lifespan of up to 50 years. The condor inhabits only the Grand Canyon area, Zion National Park, the western coastal mountains of California, and northern Baja California. In the 20th century, condor numbers declined dramatically from poaching, lead poisoning (from lead shot and bullets in carrion), and habitat destruction.

Soon, the population of condors will pass the 400 mark, a population that has not been seen since the late 1940s or early 1950s. Although it is supposedly “not nice to trick Mother Nature,” part of the success resulted from trickery. When a condor laid an egg, the egg would be removed from the nest and raised in an incubator and fed by handlers wearing condor hand puppets. The mother apparently reacts to a missing egg by laying another! It takes about 56 days to incubate a condor egg and another six months before the bird matures enough to fly. After one year, the birds raised at the Safari Park or at four breeding centers in Los Angeles, Idaho, Portland, or Baja California are released into the wild at points in Baja, Southern California, or Arizona.

According to Wikipedia, there are two sanctuaries dedicated to the condor, the Sisquoc Condor Sanctuary in the San Rafael Wilderness and the Sespe Condor Sanctuary in the Los Padres National Forest. Both were chosen for their prime condor nesting habitat, in caves and clefts of cliffs.

Condors exhibit a variety of fascinating behaviors. The skin of the head and neck can vary from yellow to glowing red-orange, depending upon mood. Parents help hatch eggs by pulling the egg shell. When young condors hatch, they play with toys like feathers and stones.

It is good to have them back, although they are still Critically Endangered.

(Note added April 26, 2011: CNN just picked up on the California condor story today.)

-Bill at

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