Imagine if you will, standing on a mountain top as a mammoth bird swoops past your head. It brings to mind a prehistoric dinosaur or an oversized eagle. If you have ever visited the Grand Canyon, you may have seen a giant California Condor, one of the rarest birds in the world.
However, these massive birds with a nine-foot wingspan once flew over vast expanses of the Pacific Northwest. In the 1800s it would have been common to spot them soaring over Washington and Oregon territory.
For now, the condor remains on the endangered species list, on which it was placed in 1967. By 1982, there were only 22 birds left in captivity. Ever since then, the population has been painstakingly managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in conjunction with the Los Angeles Zoo and the San Diego Wild Animal Park. Their captive breeding program began in 1983.
The program uses incubated eggs. When the chicks hatch, caretakers use a puppet shaped like a condor head to “mother” the chicks. This keeps the babies from identifying more with humans than their own species. The result is that the population has grown to over 400 birds that fly the skies of southern California, Arizona, Utah and Baja. However, the threat is not over.
Part of the current caretaking process involves helping the adult population survive as well. They put out carcasses for the birds to scavenge, clean their nests of trash, monitor them for lead poisoning and track them via GPS.
In fact, poison could have been what led to the near extinction years ago. In the 1830s, many people began using strychnine to kill wolves that attacked their livestock. The condors would feed on the poisoned meat or poisoned bait for the wolves. The wolves were wiped out, but so were most of the condors.
Evidence for why condors may have lived in the Northwest includes ample nesting ground, fossil records and adequate food sources such as salmon runs. Whether they will ever return or not remains up in the air, so to speak.