The California condor, North America’s largest bird, once ruled the American Southwest and California’s coastal mountains. The vulture-like bird was revered by Native Americans and was believed to contain spiritual powers.
Hundreds of years later, its future seemed all but certain. Defying odds, conservation efforts brought the species back and prevented it from joining the dodo in extinction.
Now, condor reintroduction celebrates a milestone: Chick No. 1,000 has hatched.
In the 1980s, less than two dozen condors were left in the world. Conservationists rounded up the remaining condors and began breeding them in captivity.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the condor became critically endangered in the 20th century — one classification behind extinct in the wild. The decline came from poaching, habitat destruction and lead poisoning as condors scavenged for carrion containing lead shots.
Today, more than 300 California condors exist in the wild. Including captivity breeding programs, there are more than 500 in the world, says Tim Hauck, the condor program manager at the Peregrine Fund.
The 1,000th successful birth signifies an optimistic future for the condor recovery mission.
“We’re seeing more chicks born in the wild than we ever have before,” Hauck told NPR’s Scott Simon. “And that’s just a step towards success for the condor and achieving a sustainable population.”
The hatchling is currently in Zion National Park — it emerged from its shell in May, but its survival was just confirmed in July. The chick, whose sex cannot be identified without a blood test, will fledge or take flight for the first time in November.
If the chick successfully leaves the nest, it can expect to someday grow up to have a 10-foot wingspan, or the size of a 6-foot-tall man. The bird’s average lifespan is 60 years, one of the world’s longest-living bird species.
Beyond its outsize proportions, the California condor is special for a number of reasons.
“Condors are one of the very unique species of birds in North America and in the world, for that matter. They’re extremely personable,” Hauck says. “They’ll have individual personalities. And as biologists, we really get to know these birds on a one-to-one level, so they end up meaning quite a bit to us, and we get quite attached.”
His work in withstanding condor extinction is far from over, but for now, Hauck is celebrating.
“Here’s to seeing that population increase every year,” Hauck says.