I’m starting a new bit once a month where I share species with interesting conservation stories or facts about animals I just think rule and hopefully you learn a thing or two along the way. One of my all-time favorite professors in my undergraduate opened class daily with a species of the day segment that really connected the dots between conservation in theory and conservation in action. I was also inspired by this blogs’ Species of the Month and my desire to keep sharp on conservation topics even though I’m finished with university and looking for the right career.

I will try to spread out stories between taxa1 and parts of the world, but first we start close to home with the California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus)2

The California condor is the only living New World vulture and one of the largest birds of prey3 native to the southwest United States (California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah).

condor3

Photo by: Heather Paul

The species started to rapidly decline in the 20th century, ultimately leading the to become extinct in the wild (meaning, all 22 remaining individuals were in captivity). The life history of the species combine with threats made it hard for the population to remain afloat in the wild: condors live very long lives (about 60 years), take a while to reach sexual maturity and only raise a chick or two every couple of years. Threats such as lead poisoning (condors will feed on carcasses shot and left by hunters with lead bullets), poaching (or illegal hunting) and habitat destruction4.

To replenish the population, a captive breeding program was put in place, the main strategy being taking the chick away from their moms and hand-raising them so the mom would lay a replacement egg4. Can I say, the pictures of the condor chicks with the mommy puppets are absolute adorable.

condor2

Photo by: Ron Garrison

After a bit of training, the condors were released back into their native range, including into the Grand Canyon National Park in my home state of Arizona. Their population is now over 200 individuals in the wild and still increasing5, despite the continued threats of egg collecting and power-line collisions4.

This goes to show that even in the grimmest of cases, there is still hope and people can do some really amazing things for wildlife.

Bonus fun facts

  • Ever wonder why vultures are bald? Lack of feathers makes it so that rotting food doesn’t get stuck in their feather when they’re neck deep in a carcass4
  • It is often thought that condors and other scavenging birds will circle the air when something is dead or dying, waiting for their chance to feed. This usually isn’t the case. When they’re circling, they’ve caught a “wave” of rising warm air that allows them to glide through the skies with little effort while they look for food6

Notes and sources

1 taxa: referring to taxonomoy, or the way species are grouped. E.g., since I did a bird species this month, I will do perhaps a mammal next month (fish the following time, insect, etc.).

2 Every living thing has a unique binomial Latin name of the genus followed by the species (and sometimes followed by a third name which is the subspecies). In this case, Gymnogyps is the genus and californianus is the species. This provides a universal nomenclature across different languages as well as the same language that might have different common names.

3 Science Focus, “Top 10: what are the largest birds of prey?”

4 San Diego Zoo, “California Condor”

5 IUCN Red List assessment, California Condor

6 Forbes, “Why do buzzards circle endlessly above carrion?”

Photo by Madison Roberts

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