Catching up with the California Condor: A comeback story in the making

One of the birds we most hoped to see in our travels in the West was the California Condor, the continent’s largest bird with an inspiring comeback story.

A mature condor is placed with the young birds at the breeding center to show them how to behave like condors. Photos by Anders Gyllenhaal

The condor is majestic and also kind of odd, with a wingspan of almost 10 feet and a huge body covered with black feathers resembling an overcoat. When the condor flies you can see patches of white feathers that look like racing stripes.

But it’s not easy to catch up with the condor. There are now about 300 of the raptor in the wild, sprinkled across California, Arizona, Utah and Baja California. It’s an impressive number considering the species was down to just 22 birds when wildlife managers realized the species was about to go extinct three decades ago. They caught the remaining birds, brought them into captivity and launched a breeding program that has slowly returned the birds to a portion of their range in the West.

A young condor that has yet to come into its adult plumage and coloring

Today, it takes some luck to see them in the wild.

We are winding up six months of travels to research a book on bird conservation . We hadn’t seen the condor, though. So as we headed east across the northern half of the U.S., we stopped in Boise, Idaho, which is home to the Peregrine Fund. The organization hosts the largest of the four condor breeding centers and has an ambitious program to revive the health of the species that had been one of the symbols of the West.

Two adult condors perched in the center’s aviary

As soon as you drive up to the bluff where the Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey overlooks the Boise valley, you see the condors on a perch high in the aviary. 

Condors have a regal stance and a thousand-mile stare. They also have a bald head that turns pink and scaly in adults. It’s a striking combination that helps them stand out, even while flying at remarkable heights of up to 15,000 feet.

Erin Katzner,  director of Global Engagement for the Peregrine Fund, has spent the last six years making the argument for saving condors. Although the center works on behalf of raptors all around the world,  the condor is now its primary focus. Started 51 years ago when the Peregrine Falcon was in danger of extinction, the Peregrine Fund engineered the falcon’s comeback. “There are so many falcons today that we can’t even keep up with them,’’ she said.

But the condor is still struggling and remains critically endangered.

Lead poisoning was partly to blame for the species’ collapse and is still the leading cause of its death. The birds, which live on carrion, ingest lead from the remains of animals killed with lead ammunition. The Peregrine Fund is working to persuade hunters to switch from lead to copper ammunition. The campaign is helping, but lead is still used by a percentage of hunters in the condors’ range.

Getting to see the condor is one of the best arguments for protecting this bird.

A young condor flexes its wings

Most of the 66 condors at the World Center for Birds of Prey are part of its breeding program, and the birds are carefully sequestered from people so they’ll retain a healthy fear of humans when released into the wild. (The staff took us on a tour of the breeding center, including a peek through a curtain and glass at the latest crop of condors, which is where we took these photos.)

Captive-bred condors perch in the breeding center.

The center keeps two of the condors on display in the aviary so visitors can get a close-up look and learn about their history, habit and prospects for the future. The day we visited, two male condors alternated between perching high in the enclosure, then stretching to show their enormous wingspans. Both of them are adults, so their heads have turned pink as if they’d stayed too long in the sun. They also have large white beaks, blood-red eyes and long necks that are a deep purple. But what stands out, and what you can’t stop admiring, are those massive, powerful wings.

Erin Katzner, the Peregrine Fund’s director of Global Engagement

“They really are incredible,’’ Katzner said.

Hopefully one day, tens of thousands of these birds will be flying all over the West, and will reach a point where they no longer need to hatch in captivity or be protected from human-caused hazards. The Peregrine Fund accomplished that feat for the Falcon, and believes that a consortium of organizations working together can also restore the California Condor to health.

“We’re laser focused on our mission,’’ said Katzner. “I have a tremendous amount of optimism.’’


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4 responses to “Catching up with the California Condor: A comeback story in the making”

  1. I wonder how climate change is/will affect the condors? Here in Raleigh this summer, we’re seeing birds at Shelley Lake we’ve never seen before – a pair of roseate spoonbills and a pair of juvenile ibises were here a few days before continuing to the Crabtree Creek Wetlands. Right now, we have a pair of juvenile little blue herons and a gorgeous juvenile female anhinga who’ve been here over a week. We figure climate change is pushing them all further north.

    1. Anders Gyllenhaal Avatar
      Anders Gyllenhaal

      Phyllis: Thanks very much for your comment on this piece. There can be no question that birds are affected by climate change, as you suggest. We’re told that some are struggling to keep up with early starts to the breeding season and the timing of migrations. Others seem to be able to adjust. It sounds like the long-distance migrators have the most difficulty, since they can’t know what’s happening in their destinations. You mention the spoonbills spotted at Shelley Lake. Here’s a piece we did on how Roseate Spoonbills have been among the species that are finding a way to stay ahead of the change.

  2. Anders,

    Thank you for writing this article.
    You can see wild CA Condors in the Grand Canyon, Big Sur, Utah parks and there is also a group called “Friends of the CA Condor Wild & Free” that runs a sanctuary on BLM land, co-sponsored by Fish & Wildlife. They open up, occasionally, to Condor-sighting excursions, accessed by off-road vehicles. There are two locations in CA, Bitter Creek & Hopper Mountain preserves.

    If you ever get to CA, contact “Friends” or get on their mailing list. Seeing a condor in the wild is possible. I’m glad you got to see these majestic birds because they are amazing. Zoos and refuges make it possible to have a condor experience. They care for non-releasable birds.
    I hope your condor journey continues and that experience “sparked” your imagination of good things to come.

    1. Anders Gyllenhaal Avatar
      Anders Gyllenhaal

      Thanks so much for your note, Diane. We hope we get to see them in the wild one day soon — and congratulations on the good work that you’re clearly doing on their behalf.

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