This bird technically became extinct in 1987. California condors were once widespread across North America, then perilously declined, now they’re back.
The largest bird in North America, Gymnogyps californianus, is a New World vulture. This scavenger’s diet is carrion, and in the Pleistocene era they scavenged dead megafauna. With the extinction of megafauna, their diet now is the carcasses of large and small mammals. With a long lifespan of 60 years, they help keep our planet free of rotting carcasses. More about the condor here.
Poaching, habitat destruction, and lead poisoning, combined with a natural low birth rate nearly wiped the population out. By 1987 there were only 27 California condors left on the planet.
A controversial conservation plan (info here) moved forward, and scientists captured the last 27 birds. They were protected in zoos, a breeding program was initiated, and gradually the captive numbers rose again.
The captive breeding program became so successful that in 1991 condors were reintroduced into the wild. They are still, however, classified as critically endangered. As of October 2014 there are 425 individuals on earth.
We spotted the condor photographed here off the coast of California near Julie Pffeiffer Burns State Park, not far from Big Sur. That day we saw two, Nos. 190 and 251. Ventana Wildlife Society protects the central California condors, more info here.
A massive bird with a 9.8 foot wingspan (3.0 m), they can travel 160 miles (250 km) a day. Regardless of their size, it is not easy to spot them. There are only 60 individuals, for example, in central California. Also, as gliders, they fly high: as high as 15,100 feet (4,600 m).
It was a unique encounter, seeing these condors…we had tried for years. For one thing, they are so huge they make a turkey vulture look like songbird. Bigger than a bald or golden eagle, their size is astounding.
For another thing, because they are captive bred, every individual is personally bred and documented. Redwood Queen, seen here, is a female, born on May 10, 1998 in Los Angeles to Parents #5 and 36. She has had Chicks #46, 5, and 99. To learn more I could link to her bio.
How crazy and wonderful is that?
Photo credit: Athena Alexander