Written by Jason Epperson, Storytelling by Abigail Trabue

Thirty-five years ago, we almost lost North America’s largest bird. There were 22 known in existence. A controversial choice was made to save them, that lead to years of grudges between conservationists’. And the fight for its survival is far from over. The California Condor, and one of their magnificent homes, the rock spires of Pinnacles National Park.

Condor Facts

The California condor was described by English naturalist George Shaw in 1797 as vultur californianus. They are a uniform black, except large, triangular patches or bands of white on the underside of the wings. They have gray legs and feet, a white bill, brownish-red eyes, and a ruffle of black feathers that stand out around their neck. The skin of their naked, vulturous head and neck can flush red, an emotional signal to others.

Their glorious wingspan ranges from about 8 to 10 feet – the largest of any North American bird. Condors are so large that, gliding with their wings spread stiff, they are often mistaken for a distant airplane.

California Condor

Condors are scavengers. Feasting on the carcasses of large mammals. Before humans settled North America, when mammoth and other mega-creatures roamed the land, the California Condor thrived across the continent. As those giant mammals died out, the condor’s territory was reduced and their numbers shrank. Five hundred years ago, they still roamed across the American Southwest and West Coast. They live in rocky shrubland, coniferous forests, and oak savannas, often hanging out near cliffs or large trees, which they use as nesting sites. They have been known to travel up to 160 miles in search for food, and can live for up to 60 years.

As the human development of the west expanded, the territory of these magnificent birds was encroached upon. They would often eat the lead bullets used to kill their meal by a hunter, poisoning them. They flew into power lines, and were poached. By 1982, there were 22 known California Condors in the wild.

Condor Conservation

The US Fish and Wildlife service set out on a controversial mission to save the Condors from extinction. Over the following four years, all the known living condors were trapped and brought into captivity. Condors no longer roamed the skies of Southern California.

The goal was to breed the captive condors and release their offspring into the wild. They were taken to the Los Angeles and San Diego Zoos where a breeding program began. Some conservationists thought that this was the end of the Condor. That, even if the breeding were successful, the captive-born offspring wouldn’t be the same. Conservationist David Brower said that they would be nothing more than “flying pigs.”

But the efforts pressed on. Condors form long-term pair bonds, producing one egg per nesting attempt and, if everything goes well, a chick every year and a half. Through careful breeding by the zoos and a Conservation Genetics team, sufficient numbers of chicks were produced to allow the first releases of California condors back to the wild in 1992.

Flash forward to today, there are nearly 450 living California Condors, 230 of which are in the wild. All released birds have number tags and radio transmitters so biologists can track their progress in the wild. The captive breeding programs have expanded to other zoos, and nests in the wild are now producing chicks. It’s one of the greatest species recoveries ever made.

It’s not all good news though. The reintroduction has brought challenges. Some of the released condors did have behavior issues. Being in such close contact with humans made them social and comfortable with us. A small gang invaded a home, destroying a satellite dish and ripping up a mattress. In Arizona, a young condor invaded a campsite, where he pulled a loaded gun from a backpack and walked around holding it by the trigger. These behaviors led to new breading protocols, keeping human interactions to a minimum, and the birds released today are more like their captured predecessors.

And danger still lurks around every corner. Condors are still dying. Wildfires have become a huge challenge for them as climate change reshapes the land that fires consume. Collisions with power lines are still common. Adults find bits of undigestable trash and try to feed it to their young. Conservationists go as far as removing trash from the nest and replacing it with bone chips, which the young eat as a source of calcium.

Their eggs are thin, still a product of the DDT that was dumped in the ocean through the early seventies. Marine mammal carcasses still have derivatives of the chemical, which the condors then eat.

And it’s very clear that lead poisoning is still their leading cause of death. 85 condors died between 1992 and 2009, 35 due to lead toxicosis. A portion of the population is trapped and treated for lead poisoning every year, and many conservationists say the species will not ever be self-sustaining until the lead problem is addressed.

Carcasses are left at provisioning stations for the birds to feed on, but ironically, the birds that are the most independent are the ones most likely to encounter a lead bullet, particularly during deer hunting season.

Without human intervention, the California condor would once again face extinction. Over 5 million dollars is spent annually on the effort, and the funding is on shaky ground. Most of it comes from private sources such as zoos and wildlife funds. Less than a million comes from the federal government.

Central California’s Pinnacles National Park joined the California Condor Recovery Program as a release and management site in 2003. The park currently hosts 86 wild condors, with biologists managing and monitoring the population. Juvenile condors are transferred to Pinnacles from the captive breeding facilities at the age of about a year and a half. They are placed into a flight pen with an adult mentor bird and allowed to acclimate to their new environment for at least two months. This is one of the ways biologists instill safe behavior and keep the birds from interacting with humans. They’re outfitted with their transmitters and ID tags, and leave the pen one at a time. Park biologists closely monitor the condors as they take their first wild flights, ensuring they find appropriate roost and feeding sites.

Condor staff and volunteers can often be seen tracking along the trails within surrounding areas, communicating with other biologists as they watch the entire California population. They are can recover deceased condors from the field and submit them for analysis, so that they can determine the cause of death and monitor the threats facing the condors. The birds are trapped twice a year when transmitters are repaired and blood is tested for lead.

In the late fall, park biologists work to identify potential breeding pairs for the following spring. They are monitored for breeding displays and are observed to determine breeding territories. Once a nest is identified, biologists do monthly health checks on the chick until it is four months old, at which point it gets its own transmitter and tag.

Lead has already been removed from waterfowl ammunition in the US, and some California and Oregon legislation is in place to reduce its availability for hunting big game, but there are no restrictions in the other states condors roam. If efforts to eliminate lead bullets succeed, the condors could one day be removed from the endangered species list. It’s a realistic goal, but one that will require legislative action before the 5 million dollar per year funding for condor recovery dries up.

Pinnacles National Park

A few million years of explosions, lava flows, and landslides created the 30-mile wide volcanic field that was then split down the middle by the San Andreas Fault, followed by water, wind, and chemical erosion, forming what we know today as Pinnacles National Park, 70 miles southeast of San Jose.

The serene rock formations are visited by 250 thousand visitors hikers, climbers and nature lovers each year. Overhead, Rocks the size of houses, tower above as you make your way through cool, dark caves formed by massive boulders wedged in ravines, providing a home for Townsend big-eared bats and red-legged frogs. 32 miles of trails are decorated during the spring with a variety of wildflowers, pollinated by more species of bees than any other known place in the world. Bobcats, coyotes, black-tailed deer, lizards, snakes, tarantulas, and mountain lion all call Pinnacles their home, as well as, of course, the California Condor.

There are 27 free-flying condors managed by Pinnacles National Park. They have joined with the 35 condors that soar over Big Sur, forming one central California flock. Since they don’t migrate, they can be observed in the park year round, but are still a rare site. With a little luck and some patience, you might spot one.

One of the most common viewing areas is the High Peaks in the early morning or early evening. The High Peaks can be reached from either entrance to the park, but the hike is strenuous. Another location that the condors spend time around is the ridge just southeast of the campground. Two spotting scopes have been placed in the Campground that may help you get a closer look.

Pinnacles is most popular in the cooler months, especially the spring when the grasses are green and a variety of wildflowers can be seen along any trail. Fall and winter are also excellent times to visit.

The campground is located on the eastern side of the park and is open year-round. It offers family and group tent sites, as well as RV sites with electric hookups. Flush toilets and drinking water are provided, and showers are available for a fee. A general store with basic foods and camping supplies is located on-site. A swimming pool is located within the campground and is open from April through September.

Condors are spotted from time to time in other national parks, like Zion and the Grand Canyon. A great place to spot one is on the historic Navajo Bridge, which crosses the Colorado River at Marble Canyon, at the south end of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. They like to hang out on the girders that support the bridge. It’s where I saw my first wild condor, the one that inspired this episode.

Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

Pinnacles National Park – National Park Service Website

Profiles of the Pinnacles Condors – Pinnacles National Park Website

Condor Viewing Tips – Pinnacles National Park Website

Navajo Bridge – Glen Canyon National Recreation Area Website