The California condor is, in many ways, an exceptional bird. One of the largest birds presently living, condors fly long distances at high speeds in search of their only food: carrion. California condors have a complex social life and can live for decades.
Fossil evidence indicates the species was once found throughout much of North America. By the time of European settlement its range was limited to the western part of the continent.
In the 19th century there was already concern that the California condor might become extinct. Human ignorance meant the species was subject to capture, egg collecting, harassment, shooting, and poisoning. But the condor also drew the admiration of scientists, painters, poets, and photographers.
The first detailed study of the California condor was not begun until the 1930s. Significant efforts to ensure the species’ survival began in the 1950s, as did controversy over whether the species should be managed or left alone in protected habitat. Over the next several decades that controversy escalated.
In 1987 the last free-living California condor was captured and the entire population then consisted of only 27 captives. Five years later, condors bred and raised in captivity began to be released in southern California. Since then, releases have begun in central California, Arizona, and Baja California.
As a result of an expensive and ongoing effort, there are now approximately 500 California condors, roughly half in captivity and half living freely but still under intensive management.
10 January 2018