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 across 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 California condors 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. Just 5 years later, condors bred and raised in captivity began to be released in southern California. Subsequently, releases began in Arizona, Baja California, and central California. Releases in northern California are being planned.
As a result of an expensive and ongoing effort, there are now just over 500 California condors, roughly half in captivity and half living freely but still under intensive management.
The California condor was nearly driven to extinction by humans. But for well over a century, humans have been making efforts to prevent that extinction. As a result of this history, the lives of condors and humans are thoroughly intertwined. Rather than regretting humanity’s interventions in the lives of these great birds, I celebrate the condor’s survival and the evolving relationship between people and condors.
Brian S Pedersen
22 January 2021