Adult, wild California Condor photographed in Big Sur along the central California coast. This species of Condor is critically endangered.

Photo by: GettyImages/Maureen P. Sullivan

GettyImages/Maureen P. Sullivan

Big Sur Condors, A Conservation Comeback Story

By: Lucy Sherriff

Condors once ranged from Baja California all the way to British Columbia. But, in 1987, the last wild California condor was taken into captivity in order to preserve the species. Now, thanks to a breeding program in central California, the condors are finally returning to their natural habitat in Big Sur.

Condors once ranged from Baja California all the way to British Columbia. But, in 1987, the last wild California condor was taken into captivity after decades of shooting, poisoning, and habitat destruction led to the birds’ decline.

A total of 27 California condors were kept in captivity in order to preserve the species. Now, thanks to a breeding program in central California, the condors are finally returning to their natural habitat in Big Sur. A 10-year effort is underway to bring the bird back from extinction in the wild, spearheaded by the Ventana Wildlife Society.

There are two species of condors; the Andean condor, which inhabits the Andean mountains, and the California Condor, which is the largest North American land bird. It has black plumage with white patches on the underside of its wings, a largely bald head, and at 3 meters (8.8 feet) has the widest wingspan of any North American bird.

“The condor is going to be one of the biggest comeback stories of all time,” says Kelly Sorenson, executive director at the Ventana Wildlife Society. “It is important to reintroduce California Condors back to nature to restore a balance but for me, it is more about fixing something that was broken.”

Following the success of reintroducing bald eagles into the wild, the Ventana Wildlife Society was asked by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to join the California Condor Recovery Program in an attempt to bring the condor back. The society focuses on Central California, where there is a natural habitat suited to the birds. The condors are now seen throughout the mountains, coastal canyons, and valleys of Big Sur, and the society, along with a number of California zoos, is working to boost numbers even further.



California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) the largest North American land bird flies along California Big Sur coast

Photo by: GettyImages/Mark Miller Photos

GettyImages/Mark Miller Photos

Sorenson says he is proud he and his team have had a “big influence” in results in the field, and says although the species is still classed as endangered, the recent results are so encouraging that the society is looking to expand its project.

“Zoos are working to raise more for release and Ventana Wildlife Society is gearing up to release more to the wild.”

The biggest challenge that conservation teams working to reintroduce the birds have faced are persuading hunters and ranches to switch from lead to copper ammunition – lead poisoning was one of the main causes of decline in population.

“To a lesser extent, problems associated with overhead powerlines causing condor fatalities by electrocution and/or collision has tested us,” he continues. “But working with Pacific Gas and Electric Company we have reduced condor deaths to almost nil.”

The birds that are bred in captivity are trained to avoid power lines and people, while a bill introduced in California in 2008 called the Ridley-Tree Condor Preservation Act requires hunters use non-lead bullets.

As of the end of 2018, the California Condor population was at 488, of which 312 are free flying in the wild. The other 176 are in zoos, largely for breeding purposes. In Central California, there are almost 100 in the wild.

At the moment, a combination of the birds’ low clutch size – it only has one young per nest – and a late sexual maturity age means the species is vulnerable to population decline. The society is focused on bringing the condors back to Central California to a point where the population is entirely self-sufficient.

“We’ve done a lot of work to develop release techniques,” Sorenson adds. “And we are committed to finishing the job.”

Next Up

The Untold Journey of the African House Gecko's Treck across the Atlantic Ocean

Reptile roadtrip? How the African house gecko traveled from Africa across to the Americas.

Meet This Unique Otter Species

A few months ago, Georgia Aquarium welcomed two new additions to their Asian small-clawed otter habitat. Triton, a 4-year-old female, and Han, a 3-year-old male, joined the Aquarium as part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) Species Survival Program (SSP).

Rare Whales Spotted in California

A handful of sightings of rare whales have been recorded off the coast of California in recent weeks, leading some to wonder what’s causing the magnificent beasts to swim up to the ocean surface.

How to Help Florida’s Imperiled Manatees

One morning earlier this spring, a young male manatee was found stranded, starving, and distressed on the beach of the Palm Coast.

Nature from Above: The Art of Aerial Photography

I’ll never forget the first time I went up in a small plane. Technical considerations aside, I had a million thoughts going through my mind.

America’s Mammoth Effort to Save the Monarch Butterfly

The monarch butterfly is one of the most recognizable species in the country. Its bright orange wings framed with black speckled trim and shadowed veined stripes has earned the species the name of “common tiger” in some regions.

What’s Baking in Alaska?

A trending new addition to travel bucket lists around the world is frigid-yet-beautiful Alaska. The poles, the dancing lights, and the winter wonderlands have always attracted the extreme traveler - but this time, there is more than the magical draw of the north that is inviting people up towards the corners of the globe: climate change.

The California Condor Comeback Story

When I first moved to California in the late-1990s, the California condor was something I always remember hearing about from wildlife enthusiasts.

This Giant Mushroom Is the Largest Organism Ever

These fungi are larger than blue whales and dinosaurs!

The T-Rex Has a New Branch on its Family Tree

A farmer happened upon one of the greatest fossil finds in Canada, which was recently announced by paleontologists to be, quite possibly, one of the oldest dino-finds in the country!