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Hunters and Ranchers Help Condors and other Wildlife by Using Nonlead Ammunition. Learn more…

Condors and DDT

California condors recycle the carcass of a Gray whale that washed ashore on the Big Sur coastline. Video footage by Tim Huntington.

California Condor Reintroduction
Reintroducing the California Condor to Big Sur

Baby condor in nest
Baby condor in nest

Joe Burnett testing for lead
Joe Burnett testing for lead
Releasing condor after testing
Releasing condor after testing

Taking blood from a condor
Who's in my nest?
Who's in my nest?

By the 1980s, the California Condor population was in crisis, and extinction in the wild seemed imminent. The dramatic decline of condors in the 20th century has been attributed to shooting, poisoning, electric power lines, egg collecting, and habitat loss. In 1987, the last wild California Condor was taken into captivity to join the 26 remaining condors in an attempt to bolster the population through a captive breeding program. At that time, it was uncertain whether or not North America's largest flying land bird (by wingspan, 9.5 feet) would ever again soar in the wild.

With the success of the captive breeding program, led by the San Diego and Los Angeles zoos, attention turned to releasing some condors into the wild. Beginning in 1992, condors were released in former strongholds in southern California. In 1996, condors were released in Arizona, near the Grand Canyon. Monterey County, along the central California coast, was also part of the historical range of California Condor. In fact, Spanish explorer Father Antonio de la Ascension recorded the earliest known record for condors with his sighting in Monterey Bay in 1602. The type specimen was collected in Monterey County in 1797. In 1997, Ventana Wildlife Society began releasing California Condors on the Big Sur coast, in Monterey County. We are proud to join U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Peregrine Fund, National Park Service, the Zoological Society of San Diego, the Los Angeles Zoo, and the Oregon Zoo in re-establishing, monitoring, and managing wild populations of California Condors.

Because of our efforts, combined with the efforts of our neighbors at Pinnacles National Monument, the California Condor population in central California now exceeds 50 birds. This population contributes greatly to an overall wild population approaching 200 birds. An exciting discovery was made in 2006, when a Big Sur condor pair was found nesting in the burned-out cavity of a Coast Redwood. This was the first known nesting attempt in northern California in more than 100 years, and the first known nesting in a Coast Redwood. That same year, condors were discovered feeding on a Gray Whale carcass on the Big Sur coast, something not observed since Lewis and Clark observed condors feeding on a Gray Whale carcass near the mouth of the Columbia River in 1805.

Although we are encouraged with the progress of recovery for the central California population, we recognize the continuing threats these birds face. Condors are scavengers which feed exclusively on carcasses, and they can be poisoned by contaminants in those carcasses. Lead poisoning, as a result of lead bullet fragments in game carcasses or waste piles, remains foremost among threats, despite the recent ban on lead bullets in the condor's range. To help the condors, we provide a source of non-lead carcasses and regularly trap and treat condors suffering from high blood levels of lead. To promptly detect health problems, our biologists account for each condor on a near-daily basis using radio tracking. Prompt treatment has saved the lives of several birds in the flock. We also monitor nests to ensure the greatest protection possible from potential threats to productivity.

In 2013, we published a paper showing a strong link between past manufacture and use of DDT now affecting condors in the wild. DDT causes thinning of eggs in birds and is well documented in many species. Fortunately its use was banned in the 1970's and most birds have recovered, although the condor remains affected because of the high numbers of California Sea Lions they feed upon. We remain optimistic over the long-term since no new DDT is now entering the environment, unlike lead from spent ammunition, which is still the most commonly used type used in hunting and ranching.

We hope that someday California Condor recovery will be sufficient for scaling back management efforts. What will it take? The goals for the California Condor Recovery Program are two self-sustaining wild populations (California and Arizona) and one captive population, each with at least 150 birds, and 15 breeding pairs. Because wild populations in both California and Arizona are still below this target, and require management assistance to sustain growth in the population, there is still much work to be done. You can help us with your financial gifts, memberships, and participation in Ventana Wildlife Society events. You can also help by taking one of our condor viewing tours. You can enjoy seeing condors once again soaring over the California coast while knowing that proceeds are being used to recover this special part of our natural heritage.



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Links to videos featuring California Condors in Big Sur:




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