Exhibits: Conservation: Condors
Saving One Species at at Time
A quarter-century after the enactment of the Endangered Species Act was passed, there has been several notable success stories. Over 20 species, which were considered endangered have been reclassified as threatened, and 13 species have entirely recovered, including the brown pelican, the American alligator, the gray whale, and the peregrine falcon.
The California condor may be our next success story-- a majestic bird brought back from the brink of extinction.
The largest bird in North America, and one of the largest flying birds in the world, an adult condor weighs up to 22 pounds, with a wingspan of up to 9 feet. California condors feed on carrion (dead animals), and nest in caves high up in cliffs. The condor has black feathers, except under the wing where there are distinctive white patches. Their heads and necks are featherless, and the bare skin shows gray, red and orange. Condors begin to breed about the age of six years, and lay one egg every year or two years. Nests and roosts are carefully chosen and are used by generation after generation of birds.
10,000 years ago, the California condor inhabited much of the southwest, from California to Texas but by the time Europeans began exploring the west, condor habitat had been reduced to the mountains along the Pacific coast from Baja California, in Mexico, north to the San Francisco Bay area.
As California's human population boomed the condor population began to decline. Condors ate bullets in carrion left behind by hunters and died of lead poisoning. Human activity drove the birds away from traditional nests and roosting areas. Pesticides caused infertility and weakened eggshells so much that a mother's weight would crush the eggs. Condors flew into power lines and were wantonly killed.
By 1982 there were only 22 California condors in the wild. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service captured a few wild birds for captive breeding, and hoped that increased environmental protections would protect the remaining condors. The protections were not enough, and by 1985, only 9 birds remained in the wild. A difficult decision to capture all the remaining birds was made, and by May 1987, no more condors soared over the cliffs of California.
Building up the Numbers
Faced with a small gene pool and a ticking clock, biologists at the US Fish and Wildlife Service scientists faced a daunting task: how to keep the condors from going extinct, but also to build up their numbers to the point where they could survive in the wild once more. How could this be done?
Offers of help poured in. The Los Angeles Zoo and the San Diego Wild Animal Park had the room for a breeding facility. The Peregrine Fund had already worked on successful recoveries of other birds of prey, including peregrine falcons and bald eagles. Working together, biologists hatched eggs, nurtured chicks, watched the birds carefully, learned lessons from setbacks, and celebrated as the numbers grew.
Species in Danger
North America once seemed a land of infinite natural resources, but since the arrival of Europeans, more than 500 species have become extinct, and the population of many more declined due to loss of habitat, degradation of the environment, pollution, the wide use of pesticides and other causes.
The 20th century saw the rise of a movement to reverse this destructive trend. The more we study the natural world, the better we understand the complex relationships between living beings. Across the planet, governments and other organizations have used our knowledge to preserve both the disappearing wild species and the lands they need to survive.
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