Defeating Extinction: The Tale of the California Condor

April 18th, 2021. By Aiden Wong '22

Protecting the environment sounds like an idealistic, lofty goal. However, as the story of the California Condor shows, real progress can and has been made! The tale of the California Condor's revival from the brink of extinction isn't just for bird lovers, but also for anyone looking for a dose of hope.

Spring has always been a season of rebirth and, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, this spring is no different. Last month on March 24, the US Fish and Wildlife Service accepted a proposal by the Yurok Tribe to reintroduce the California condor into its native habitat in Redwood National Park. This is exciting news as they haven’t flown in the skies above the Northern Californian coast for decades! While the California condor isn’t out of the woods yet, the first group of around six condors is expected to be released into the wild as early as this fall. An increase in the condor population would not only benefit bird-watchers but could also help create a buffer against the loss of genetic diversity caused by wildfires and climate change.

However, in order to appreciate the magnitude of the condor’s revival, we have to take a trip back in time. Back before the 1970s, the California Condor thrived throughout its range from western Canada to northern Mexico. As the largest North American bird with a wingspan of almost 10 feet, condors were a beautiful part of the native Californian landscape. For the Native American tribes that lived in California, including the Yurok tribe that spearheaded the condor revival plan, the California Condor was a sacred bird that held spiritual and cultural significance. Like vultures, the condors also played an essential role by scavenging on the carcasses of large mammals like deer.

Unfortunately, as a result of lead poisoning caused by bullets left in the carcasses of dead mammals and the loss of prey populations like antelopes and elks, California Condors began to have trouble finding food. In addition, the increase in pesticides that destroyed the condors’ eggs and the condors’ long maturity process (female condors only give birth after six years) caused the wild California Condor population to dwindle to fewer than a dozen in the entire world by the late 1970s! It looked like the condors’ extinction was inevitable.

But because of its significance to the Californian ecosystem, conservation efforts almost immediately began in 1980. Conservation groups began collecting condors for captive breeding and studying condor birth patterns. As a result, they learned that female condors produced more babies when their eggs were taken away. Through the tedious but necessary captive breeding programs, conservationists were able to raise the condor population all the way to 161 condors in 2000! In addition to efforts by conservationists, the legislation also played a role in the condors’ revival. In 2013, California banned the use of lead bullets which had been a key killer of the condors. Fast forward to 2021, the California Condor population has risen to over 300 birds and is ready to be reintroduced into the wilderness!

While the California Condor may not be the most elegant bird, it has played an irreplaceable role in the Northern Californian ecosystem for thousands of years. Furthermore, the bird has become enshrined in the cultural and spiritual traditions of many of the Native American tribes that live here. And now, the condor is a symbol of hope; through the hard work of conservationists and scientists, the California Condor was saved from the brink of extinction and serves as a reminder of the rich ecological history of California.