The San Diego Zoo received its first California condor in 1929. It was donated by a couple who had discovered it with a crippled wing in Ventura, California. The condor’s wing had to be amputated, but it remained an active and healthy bird for over 10 years.
San Diego Zoo Global was given permission by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and California Department of Fish and Game to begin the first zoological propagation program for California condors when there were only 22 of the birds left in the world and special “condor-minium” with six large, free-flight enclosures was built at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. In 1982, the first California condor was brought into a zoo as part of the recovery program. Named Xolxol, he had been neglected by his parents because they were still rearing a chick from the previous year. He was successfully raised at the Safari Park.
The practice of collecting condor eggs form the wild for artificial incubation began in 1983, when the first collected egg of a California condor was received at the San Diego Zoo. Sisquoc, the first California condor ever hatched in a zoo, emerged from his shell on March 30, 1983. News of his hatching triggered an outpouring of mail from all over the world. Congratulatory letters were sent by conservationists, zoos, governments, school classrooms, and many individuals, all wanting to help with the condor project. In 1987, the last California condor remaining in the wild, called AC9, was brought to the Park. With the species now extinct in the wild, one half of the world's population lived at the Park. A new high point in condor conservation was reached when Molloko, the first zoo-bred condor, hatched on April 29, 1988. And in 1992, the first zoo-bred condors were released into native California habitat in Los Angeles National Forest.
Sisquoc continues to make the news! He and his mate, Shatash, were featured on our new Condor Cam, raising their chick together. Viewers around the world were able to watch this experience pair hatch and care for their chick, Saticoy. We are proud to say we have had 165 California condor hatchings since Sisquoc's arrival so long ago.
Although most of our condors live in their off-exhibit condor-minium at the Safari Park, guests can get up-close views of condors not in our breeding program at the Park’s Condor Ridge and in the Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey. And in 2011, a webcam was installed at the Park’s condor-minium. This Condor Cam allows a peek into our recovery efforts at our off-exhibit breeding facility. Join us as we monitor everything from egg hatchings to preparing adults for release into the wilds of California, Arizona, and Baja California, Mexico.
Down to 22
The California condor population was almost wiped out by the destruction of habitat, poaching, and lead poisoning. In 1982, only 22 birds remained in the wild. San Diego Zoo Global was given permission to begin the first captive propagation program for California condors. The program also involved the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Game, the National Audubon Society, and the Los Angeles Zoo.
Thanks to the conservation-breeding program, within 20 years the population of California condors grew to almost 200 birds. It took a variety of techniques developed by scientists and bird keepers to do this. Eggs were removed from condor nests, encouraging the females to lay replacement eggs. The removed eggs were placed in incubators for hatching. To make the hand-raised condors feel like their parents were raising them, the newly hatched chicks were fed and cared for using adult look-alike condor puppets and placed with mentor condors to learn social skills. Taped sounds of adult condors were played to the chicks as well.
In the early 1990s, captive-bred condors were released into the wild in California. Today, condors are released at five different release sites. One release site is in northern Arizona at the Vermilion Cliffs, just north of Grand Canyon National Park. Three sites are in California: the Ventana Wilderness in Big Sur, Pinnacles National Monument, and near the Sespe Condor Sanctuary in the Los Padres National Forest, north of Los Angeles.
Along with our Mexican partners, Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, Instituto Nacional de Ecología, and COSTA SALVAJE, we have been managing a long-term program to restore the California condor to a fifth site in the Sierra San Pedro Martír Mountains of northern Baja California, Mexico, where it went extinct sometime in the mid-1950s, likely for the same reasons we nearly lost the condor in the United States: shooting, collisions with man-made objects, and lead poisoning. In 2012, we were delighted to see the first condor to successfully fledge in Baja. Baja condors now produce 12 to 15 chicks annually in the wild.
Condors still face threats
Appreciation and protection of the condors' wild habitat is crucial for their ongoing survival. This is not always an easy task. Their main threat these days comes from environmental toxins, predominantly lead. When they eat animals that have been shot, the condors end up accidentally consuming the bullet/shot as well. Since lead is a very soft metal, it can be digested and absorbed into the bloodstream, resulting in lead poisoning. Switching to lead-free ammunition can greatly aid the California condors' recovery. In fact, our pathologists have shown that lead poisoning is the only significant cause of mortality for adult condors, providing the scientific foundation for legislation to phase out lead ammunition in California.
Power-line collisions, indiscriminate shooting, museum and egg collecting have taken their toll over the years as well. Condors need strong and consistent winds to achieve their soaring flight and to move around their habitat with energetic efficiency while searching for the widely dispersed animal carcasses that comprise their diet. We use a number of techniques to monitor the birds including radio telemetry, satellite GPS telemetry, and good-old binoculars and telescopes. We not only study where they go and what they do, but also how they get there. By positioning a dozen remote sensing weather stations throughout their range, we will eventually better understand how they make decisions of when and where to fly. For example, sites for proposed wind-energy developments may pose a risk to condor populations because the strong winds that are attractive to condors are also attractive to companies planning to install wind turbines. Our research can help reduce the risk of condors being injured by turbines by ensuring that they are situated at a safe distance from the major condor travel routes identified by our study.
The good news
As of May 31, 2013, the total population of California condors is 435! Of those, 237 are living in the wild. It's quite a come-back story! Condors still need the watchful eye and careful protection of conservationists and all of us who want to see them survive into the future. But it is good to know that all the hard work done so far has enabled California condors to stay with us in the 21st century. As more wild condors transfer to natural foods and lead poisoning becomes better controlled, we should achieve full recovery of this species over the next decade!
You can help us bring California condors back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.