The largest bird in North America was nearly wiped out. Here’s how it fought its way back
The California Condor, which was on the verge of extinction, is slowly making a comeback. This news is inspiring in an era where many species are on the brink of annihilation due to climate change and human industrial expansion. In May, the 1,000th chick hatched at Zion National Park in Utah giving scientists hope for the future of these magnificent animals.
There aren’t many happy conservation stories these days.
The plot and players are familiar by now: a species on the verge of extinction and a swelling human population seemingly intent on pushing it over the edge, plus the ever-looming climate catastrophe that ratchets up the stakes in all wildlife protection narratives.
But in the case of the California condor — North America’s largest flying bird — those elements add up to something very different: good news.
In 1982, when just 22 California condors were left in the world and the species’ obituary was being written in advance, scientists captured the remaining population to breed the scavenger birds in captivity. Nearly four decades later, a consortium of government agencies and nonprofit groups announced a miraculous milestone: 1,000 California condor chicks hatched since the official rescue program began.
The 1,000th chick hatched at Zion National Park in Utah, probably in May. Officials confirmed its survival earlier this month, inspiring a symbolic cheer at a time when experts say Earth is experiencing its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals, the worst since dinosaurs died off 65 million years ago.
“We don’t celebrate the successes enough to remember what that feels like and get reinvigorated,” Chris Parish, director of conservation at the Peregrine Fund, a partner in the recovery program, told The Washington Post. “We’ve put a lot of effort into this. A lot of dollars, a lot of years of research. We are closer to recovery, and our ultimate goal is a self-sustaining population.”
Forty thousand years ago, condors prowled skies across North America, their nearly 10-foot wingspans cutting an impressive figure wherever the trail of mammoth and saber-toothed cat carcasses led them. Considered sacred by many Native American tribes in the west, the number of California condors began to dwindle as citizens of a young United States spread across the continent.
The birds often feast on the carrion of animals shot and left behind by hunters, and they sometimes swallow lead pellets, fragments or whole bullets while picking at the flesh. Scientists understand this relationship, between lead and animals that become part of the food chain, in large part because they were so fastidious in their study of the California condor.
It was among the research that prompted California’s ban on lead ammunition, which took effect this month and prohibits lead ammunition when shooting any wildlife anywhere in the state. But Parish and the North American Non-lead Partnership have avoided advocating bans and are instead pushing for increased education in the hunting community.
Parish pointed to a pilot program in Northern Arizona, where nearly 9 in 10 deer hunters have either switched to non-lead ammunition or agreed to haul away the remains of shot animals. It’s programs like that, he said, that must be expanded if the conservation community wants to continue the condor’s success story.
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