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Natural Perspectives: The saga of the condor

November 09, 2011|By Vic Leipzig and Lou Murray
  • Andy Schucker demonstrates the use of a condor hand puppet. Chicks are fed and groomed with puppets that resemble their parents to prevent them from imprinting on people.
Andy Schucker demonstrates the use of a condor hand puppet.… (Lou Murray )

At the end of the last Ice Age, California condors ranged eastward from the California coast all the way to Texas, Florida and even New York.

But by 1800, the range of the condor population had shrunk considerably. The birds lived along the Pacific coast from British Columbia south to the mountains of Baja California, and eastward into Idaho, Utah and parts of Arizona.

The Gold Rush of 1849 hastened the decline of these magnificent birds. It turned out that the hollow shaft of their huge primary wing feathers held exactly 1 ounce of gold dust. Miners shot the birds for their feathers as a handy way to measure and carry their poke of dust. Condor wing feathers fetched the handsome price of $1 each during gold mining days, which made shooting condors highly profitable.

In 1890, James G. Cooper, founder of the Cooper Ornithological Society, wrote an article titled "A Doomed Bird." In the article he stated, "I can testify myself that from my first observation of it in California in 1855, I have seen fewer every year when I have been in localities the most suitable for them. There can be little doubt that unless protected, our great vulture is doomed to rapid extinction."

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Cooper attributed the forecasted demise to poisoning for predator control, a decline in their food supply and shooting.

It wasn't until much later that the role of lead poisoning from rifle bullets was recognized as a primary cause of condor demise. Even if a bird managed to avoid being shot, it could become sick from eating carcasses or entrails that contained lead pellets. Human disturbance of nesting sites and the eggshell-thinning effect of DDT also contributed to the decline of the species.

By 1950, the condor population had fallen to about 150 birds. Numbers declined steadily during the 1960s and 1970s. By the early 1980s, the California condor population in the wild was down to a mere handful of birds. By 1986, you could count all the condors in the wild on one hand. Cooper's prediction seemed to be coming true.

A coalition of wildlife biologists and ornithologists made the controversial decision to capture the last five condors from the wild and set up a captive breeding program. One of the reasons this decision was controversial was that up until that time, there had been no successful breeding of condors in captivity.

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