Although many birders think of California Condors as birds of southern California and the arid Southwest, their historical range stretches from Baja California to British Columbia. In 1806, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark reported seeing condors at the mouth of the Columbia River, which serves as much of the boundary between Oregon and Washington. But the birds haven’t been in the Northwest for more than a century.
Using its nearly 10-foot wingspan — the largest in North America — the California Condor can soar for hours on thermals using little energy as it searches vast areas for carrion. The condor was one of the first birds listed under the Endangered Species Act, and it is famously the recipient of some of the most intensive conservation efforts ever dedicated to a bird species.
Once down to 22 birds, all of the remaining wild birds were captured in 1987 and placed in a captive breeding program, which slowly began producing enough birds to reintroduce them into the wild starting in 1992. Approximately 275 wild birds live in California, Arizona, Utah, and Baja California, and 165 are in captivity. Each wild condor has a numbered wing tag, allowing researchers (and birders) to identify every bird.
By far the biggest challenge for condor reintroduction is lead poisoning from spent ammunition and use of lead shot. Lead ammunition shatters into tiny pieces on impact so when a condor feeds on a deer carcass or other animal shot with a lead bullet, lead enters its bloodstream, which can lead to poisoning and eventually death.
Many wild condors show at least some evidence of lead poisoning and all are regularly captured, tested, and treated for lead; even wild condors receive significant human assistance. Although lead shot is banned for waterfowl hunting, it is still widely used for other hunting.
The possibility of a California Condor reintroduction in the Pacific Northwest has been around for years, at least since the Oregon Zoo became the fourth breeding facility in 2003.
But the idea has inched closer to reality in recent years as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, the Yurok Tribe, and others conducted feasibility studies and held a series of meetings to solicit public comments, which have been largely supportive.
A formal evaluation under the National Environmental Policy Act is now being prepared, and if all goes well, by 2019, condors may be released in Redwood National Park, along the northern California coast.
California Condors may again soar over the Pacific Northwest, as they did in the days of Lewis and Clark. Until then, two of the best places to see condors are Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona (Hotspot Near You No. 196) and Pinnacles National Park in California (Hotspot Near You No. 200). Both are release locations for captive-raised condors. — Jason A. Crotty
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