The California condor is North America’s largest land bird, with a wingspan of nearly three metres. It inhabits rocky shrublands, forests and savannahs and can fly at altitudes of up to 4500 metres. By the time of westward expansion, the condor’s range was reduced to the mountains of the Pacific Coast. Shooting and poisoning by humans decreased its numbers to 600 by 1890 and by 1982, there were just 22 condors left in the wild.
Initiated in 1975, the California Condor Recovery Program is a cooperative effort by federal, state and private agencies in the western United States. Controversial debate over how to best manage the condor resulted in all 22 remaining birds being captured by 1987 to start a captive breeding programme. Double clutching was used, a technique in which a condor’s single egg is removed to encourage the laying of another egg in that year. Chicks from the incubated eggs were then handled and raised using condor puppets so they did not imprint on humans.
In 1992, the first condors were released into the wild and the first wild condor chick hatched in 2002. Condors have been reintroduced to various locations in Arizona, California and Baja California, Mexico. There are now over 300 condors and approximately half of them live in the wild.
Yet today wild condors continue to be victims of human action. As they mainly feed on carrion, the dead and decaying flesh of animals, condors are extremely vulnerable to lead poisoning when they ingest lead shot. It is the leading cause of death among the species, resulting in 60 percent of wild condor deaths. Since 2008 hunters are required to use non-lead ammunition in condor recovery areas, but without a nationwide effort condors remain extremely vulnerable.