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California condors: rescued from the brink of extinction

These magnificent birds are, once again, soaring through Utah skies.

California condors (Gymnogyps californianus) are among the largest, rarest birds in North America, and you'll find them soaring over the red-rock cliffs of southwestern Utah.

Huge and magnificent

The California condor is one of the largest flying birds in North America. With a wingspan of nearly 10 feet — and a body that's four to five feet long — the condor is the size of a small car. In flight, condors are breathtaking. They can reach speeds of 50 miles per hour when soaring, and they sometimes travel up to 200 miles a day in search of food.

Up close, the condor's unique appearance adds to its charm. Adults have bald pinkish-orange heads and a distinctive white triangle pattern on the undersides of their jet-black wings. Juvenile condors are generally a dull black with grayish heads. Their coloration begins to change after three or four years, but they don't reach full maturity until they are about six years old. Their long, featherless heads are hygienic adaptations that help the birds avoid problems associated with eating carrion.

Rare and recovering

Long ago, thousands of California condors soared over the western United States. Their numbers declined over the years, eventually plummeting with the arrival of settlers. Habitat loss, lead poisoning, poaching, power-line accidents and DDT contamination took a deadly toll. By 1987, the world's 22 remaining California condors, all living in the mountains above Santa Barbara, California, were captured and held in captivity.

California condor
Before a California condor is released into the wild, biologists attach radio transmitters and number tags. The biologists use these tools to identify and monitor the birds.

Photo by Lynn Chamberlain

A captive-breeding effort at southern California zoos helped the condors avoid extinction. In 1992, condors were reintroduced to the wild in California. There are now more than 430 condors in existence, and over half of those (approximately 230) are flying free in parts of Arizona, California, Baja California and Utah. The birds are protected under the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Condors were reintroduced to northern Arizona in 1996. Since the initial reintroduction, there have been additional releases, and mated condors have produced nearly 20 chicks. Many of the birds fly back and forth between Utah and Arizona on a regular basis, and there are now more than 70 birds in the Arizona-Utah population.

Devoted mates and parents

In the wild, California condors live up to 50 years, mate for life and are attentive parents. At about the age of six, condors begin to look for a mate. Like many birds, males attract their partners through highly ritualized mating displays. Female condors typically lay a single egg on the floor of a small cave or crevice, often in the face of a large cliff. Both parents help incubate the egg, which takes about eight weeks to hatch. If the first egg fails, a second is often laid. After the egg hatches, the young condor will remain in its cave for two to three months. Most condors take their first flights when they are about six months old.

The juvenile condor's parents take care of their offspring for a full year — and sometimes longer. Because the adults spend so much time caring for their young, wild condor pairs normally nest every other year.

In June 2014, biologists confirmed that a California condor chick hatched in Zion National Park. This chick is Utah's first wild-hatched condor since the species was reintroduced to Arizona in 1996.

A diet with drawbacks

California condors are the largest members of the vulture family Cathartidae. Like their relatives, they are scavengers that feed on dead animals.

Condors often travel more than 150 miles per day in search of food. They feed primarily on large mammal carrion, like deer, sheep, elk and cattle. They also sometimes feed on smaller carrion, like rabbits, hares and coyotes. Despite their eating habits, condors bathe frequently and spend much time preening their feathers.

Unfortunately, condors aren't too picky about their meals. They eat everything, including the lead ammunition fragments that remain in the carcasses of hunted animals. Several studies have shown that lead poisoning is the leading cause of death in California condors, accounting for more than 50 percent of all mortality. It is also the biggest factor slowing the birds' recovery.

Removing lead from condor country

Since reintroduction began, dozens of condors in California and Arizona have perished because of lead poisoning.

If the poisoning isn't severe, biologists can capture the condors and treat them to lower their lead levels. However, this is a time-consuming and expensive process. The states are also taking measures to reduce condors' exposure to lead:

  • Since 2005, Arizona has worked with hunters, landowners and conservation groups to remove lead from condor country voluntarily. The state supplies hunters with non-lead ammunition if they hunt in condor territory.
  • In 2008, California banned the use of lead ammunition in the counties where condors fly and feed.
  • In 2011, Utah launched a voluntary non-lead ammunition program similar to Arizona's. With the help of The Peregrine Fund, the program expanded substantially in 2013. Big game hunters who were heading to condor territory received coupons for free non-lead ammunition. If they used that ammunition — or opted to pack out their gut piles — they were eligible to enter a drawing for an ATV or one of five hunting rifles. The Peregrine Fund donated the prizes as part of its effort to help restore condor populations.

As of fall 2014, biologists were pleased that substantially fewer condors in the Arizona-Utah population had to be treated for lead exposure. Only 13 birds were treated from Sept. 1, 2013 to Aug. 31, 2014, as compared to 28 birds that were treated during the same period the previous year.

Seeing condors in Utah

Although they often winter in Arizona, many condors from the southwestern population soar over Utah. They can travel back and forth between the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park in a single day.

The birds commonly visit Utah between April and November, but peak numbers usually occur from June through August. One of their favorite places to roost is in Zion National Park. If you see a California condor in the wild, you should:

  • Take a picture — or a few dozen. These enormous, majestic birds date back to prehistoric times and are not yet safe from extinction.
  • Keep your distance and do not feed condors. This will help you and the birds avoid negative or unsafe human-condor encounters.
  • Report anyone who appears to be poaching or harassing condors. You can contact wildlife officials at 1-800-662-3337.

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