A California condor lands at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge, California, where condor recovery work is taking place.

A California condor lands at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge, California, where condor recovery work is taking place.

Photo by: Ian Shive / TandemStock.com

Ian Shive / TandemStock.com

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.

January 04, 2021

Spotting a condor in the wild would be the rarest of treats, perhaps even more rare than spotting a wolf in Yellowstone National Park, which had just been reintroduced not that long before the 1990s. In fact, the wolf was what opened my eyes to the fact that humans could bring an animal back to an ecosystem it had disappeared, that we weren’t just sitting idly back while species would become ghosts in a place they had lived for millennia.

We're sorry, there seems to be an issue playing this video. Please refresh the page or try again in a moment. If you continue to have issues, please contact us here.

Loading Video...

Unlike the wolf, though, the condor had wings and its habitat and nesting sites tend to be located up steep cliffs and in exceptionally remote areas, all factors that made seeing one even more difficult. Add to the fact that in 1987, there were only 27 condors left, none of which were in the wild, only in captive breeding programs. It was those breeding programs, though, that contributed to their population numbers rising, enough that by 1991 they could release some into the wild. In 2018, their numbers had slowly risen to 488 condors in the wild or in captivity.

Still, the odds of seeing a condor, which remains a critically endangered species, let alone getting a photo of one, is very low. Condor numbers initially dropped mostly due to human factors, such as poaching, habitat destruction, and lead poisoning--these are all challenges they still face today. Lead poisoning remains a unique problem and is still being addressed by conservationists. Condors ingest lead into their systems by scavenging carcasses left behind by hunters, their lead bullets lodged within the flesh of the deceased animal from which the condor eats. Some estimates attribute 60% of condor deaths to lead poisoning, however through policy changes and hunter education, change is happening and improvements are being made.

This is just a bird's eye view of the challenges facing condors, there are many others, but it is part of why the opportunity to work with the US Fish & Wildlife Service team and their partners aiding in their recovery is so special to me as a photographer. I am not only able to photograph the birds in their wild habitat, but also understand and document how difficult the work is of those people on the front lines of conservation. These are big birds, weighing 20-pounds with an almost 10 foot wingspan and a razor sharp beak. They are used to tearing flesh off of dead things, so as someone physically handling them, you have to be skilled and to a degree, a bit fearless.

I am grateful for the work of conservationists, and my hope is that with time, condor populations will continue to rise allowing future generations an opportunity I never had when I first got here…to look to the sky and see one flying around.

Ian Shive

Ian Shive is a photographer, author, film and television producer, and conservationist who has been praised as the “leading chronicler of America’s national parks.”

Next Up

Are The Birds Getting Louder?

From the pages of The Explorers Journal, contributing editor Nick Smith gets to the bottom of a global pandemic phenomenon.

Condors are Missing in California’s Wildfire Blaze

A conservation success story in California has taken a turn for the worst following the catastrophic blazes that have swept the state over the past month.

New Research Reveals Cause of Death for 3 Million Birds

An estimated 3 million short-tailed shearwaters died along the coast of Australia in 2013. New research suggests humans and the 2012 Harve submarine eruption are to blame.

An Inspiration for All: Rosie the Penguin

Rosie the Riveter, meet your adorable present-day inspiration, Rosie the penguin from the OdySea Aquarium in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Bald Eagles Made a Comeback But Now They’re Under Threat Again

The resurgence of bald eagles in American skies has been touted as one of the biggest conservation successes in the country – but now scientists say the birds are being poisoned by lead.

Shape-Shifting is How Some Animals Adapt to Climate Change

On a warming planet, the ability of animals to adapt to climate change can be the difference between survival and extinction.

Twin Red Panda Cubs Born at Chester Zoo

In June, twin red pandas were born at England’s Chester Zoo as part of its endangered species breeding program, and they are as adorable as ever! After nine weeks in their nest boxes, these cubs passed their health checkup, which is great news in the animal world as there are less than 10,000 in the wild.

Lion Queens of India

How Asiatic lionesses save their cubs, by playing the field.

Love is in the Air (and the Water) at Georgia Aquarium

Penguins are among the few animals that mate for life; we call this pair bonding. It must have been “bond at first sight” for Charlie and Lizzy, two African penguins at Georgia Aquarium who have been pair-bonded for about 28 years.

Virgin Births: The First California Condor Chicks Born from Unfertilized Eggs

The first two instances of asexual reproduction have been confirmed in the California condor species.THE ZOO: SAN DIEGO is streaming on discovery+.

Related To: