PAGE, Ariz. — In a remote area of northeastern Arizona, far from the crowds gathering to celebrate National Public Lands Day Sept. 22, another celebration was taking place. A California condor opened its wings and soared high above Vermilion Cliffs.
Once critically endangered, the re-population of California condors is one of the Southwest’s best success stories, although the bird still faces challenges in the wild. Condors are hatched and reared in captivity at The Peregrine Fund's World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho, and transported to Arizona for release to the wild.
Condors chosen for release also come from the Oregon Zoo, Los Angeles Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park.
The condor is the largest raptor in the United States, weighing in at around 25 pounds with an impressive 9.5 foot wingspan. Its distinctive red head and glossy black feather are typical of the New World vulture species it is classified with – unlike other raptors like hawks or eagles, who rely on large, strong talons and sharp eyesight to catch prey, condors have weaker talons and eyesight and a much sharper sense of smell for detecting carcasses.
Feeding on animal carcasses instead of live prey may seem easier, but it’s currently the largest threat to the California condor in the wild, many of which are soaring over northern Arizona and Utah. Poisoning from lead shot builds up in the blood stream, eventually causing serious health concerns. Hunters may inadvertently leave gut piles containing lead fragments where scavengers can feed on them, in turn contaminating the food chain condors rely on the eat. In 1982, when the bird was granted endangered species protection, there were just 22 of them left in the wild. The last wild condor in Arizona was spotted near Williams in 1924.
In addition to threats posed by lead poisoning, the breeding habits of the large bird mean that even healthy adult birds will produce a limited number of offspring. California condors mate for life, and do not reach sexual maturity until about six years of age. They can live long lives in the wild — around 50 to 60 years — but females only lay one egg per year.
The Peregrine Fund began working with the California condor program in 1993. At that time, the organization expanded the captive breeding program for this species at the Idaho-based World Center for Birds of Prey, which continues to produce condors each year. Once or twice each year, the organization captures the released birds to test for lead levels in their blood. If it’s too high, the birds are treated before being released again.
Thirty years after the last of the wild California condors were rounded up to begin a captive breeding program to save the species, nearly 450 of the birds can be found worldwide — about half of those are successfully surviving in the wild with close to 100 in northern Arizona and southern Utah.