Among the largest birds ever to take flight, condors evolved at a time when North and South America provided a reliable banquet of plentiful food for the huge scavengers. Thousands of years ago great herds of large grass-eating animals were found on both continents. When these woolly mammoths, mastodons, camels, and bison died from disease or predation, their carcasses provided food for condors. In South America, the Andean condor soared over the peaks of the Andes Mountains from what is now Venezuela to the southern tip of Chile. The California condor, despite its present-day name, roamed with mammal herds over much of North America. Evidence indicates that California condors were once found in New York State, Florida, throughout the desert Southwest, northern Mexico, and as far north as southern Alaska.
The wide range of the Andean and California condors occurred ten thousand years ago, as the last ice age was ending. Around this time, the large mammals that the condor depended on for food were unable to adapt to the changing environment and began to disappear. As its food sources dwindled, the condor's range began to shrink. In South America, Andean condor numbers were severely reduced, especially in Colombia and Venezuela, the northern-most portion of their range.
California condors also suffered from this loss of food and disappeared from inland North America. The condors that remained became concentrated in the West, where food was still available. However, the arrival of Europeans in this region in the mid-1800s placed new pressures on the condor. Human activities and encroachment essentially sealed the fate of a bird whose range had already been dramatically reduced.
Direct persecution, through hunting and egg collection, as well as advancing human settlement in the West caused the California condor's population to decline rapidly. By the early 1900s only one hundred birds remained.
These numbers continued to drop until, by the 1980s, it was apparent that the condor was close to extinction. Only nine individuals remained in the wild; twenty-four more resided in zoos. All hope had faded that the condor population would recover without human intervention. Faced with the prospect of losing the species forever, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service examined the alternatives. One option was to do nothing: The birds remaining in the wild would be left alone to continue their course toward extinction. The alternative was to remove the birds from the wild and use them as the basis for a captive-breeding program to reestablish the species.
In 1987 the decision was made to round up the last free-living condors to begin an ambitious plan of captive breeding and eventual reestablishment of a wild population. This decision ultimately led to one of the most costly and most controversial experiments ever undertaken to revive an endangered species.
Condors captured from the wild were taken to breeding facilities at the San Diego Wild Animal Park and the Los Angeles Zoo. Eventually, a third breeding site was established in Boise, Idaho, at the World Center for Birds of Prey. By 1991, fifty-two condors were in captivity, enough to begin releasing them into the wild. Condors were released first in southern California, then in Arizona, and most recently along the central California coast.
Although there have been setbacks, there is reason to be optimistic about the future of the condor. Released birds are showing increased natural social behavior and will be old enough to breed within the next few years. It will take years for the condor population to become secure, but biologists are hopeful that the bird is well on its way to maintaining a presence in western North America.
Experts estimate that condor conservation efforts will eventually cost nearly $50 million, a large sum of money to be spent on an ungainly, prehistoric bird. Americans, however, have made a commitment to the endangered species program, and most herald the recovery efforts for the condor as being "the right thing to do." Hopefully, in the future the value of this program will be affirmed by the presence of a healthy free-living condor population.
Source: Endangered Animals & Habitats: The Condor, Lucent Overview Series. Lucent Books. 2001.
Condor image from Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia.