To Extinction and Back Again: Zion National Park’s California Condor

Jul 6, 2019

Last month, rangers at Zion National Park announced that they suspected a pair of California condors had hatched their first egg in a nest in the park.

The species, which nearly went extinct in 1987, has slowly been making a comeback in the region, and particularly on federally protected lands. Despite this, they remain on the endangered species list.

Keep reading to learn more about this incredible species, including how they once went extinct and where you might be able to sight them in the park.

North America’s Largest Bird

At first glance, these may not be the prettiest creatures living in Zion. But if you know anything about this fascinating bird and its history, you’ll be eager to spot one in the park.

California condors are the largest species of bird native to the United States. Between their large size, reaching a wingspan of up to 3 meters, their black feathers, and their bald head, they’re easy to spot. Besides being the largest bird in North America, they’re also one of the longest-living; they’ve been known to live as long as 60 years.

Condors maintain a home range but can travel up to 160 miles in a single day as they search their habitat for the carrion they feast on. They are known for their graceful glide, sometimes flying over a mile before needing to flap their wings.

Landing on the Endangered Species List

Throughout the 1900s, the condor species’ numbers in the wild dropped dramatically. While they were once common across the southeast, poaching, power lines, DDT poisoning, and loss of habitat caused the death of thousands of condors.

One of the biggest threats to California condors is lead poisoning. Because they are scavengers, these birds often feed on animals that have been poached or hunted legally. When hunters use bullets that contain lead, this contaminates those remains. Condors and other animals who feast on the kill can then get lead poisoning as a result.

Despite efforts to convince hunters to use non-lead bullets or to remove their kills if they do use lead bullets, lead poisoning of California condors continues to be a serious threat to the species.

Going Extinct

By the mid-1900s, California condors were critically endangered. Biologists were doing what they could to educate the public and protect the condor’s habitat, but even that proved to not be enough to save the species. They were about to be hit by a threat that no one saw coming.

In the 1960s, hundreds of acres of Las Casitas National Forest burned. The fire started after country legend Johnny Cash’s car overheated and ignited a devastating forest fire. The fire resulted in the deaths of 49 of the area’s 53 California condors.

While the species had numbers elsewhere in the southwest at the time, this was just one more in a long series of blows to the species. In 1987, the California condor officially went extinct in the wild.

Luckily, 27 still remained in captivity at the San Diego Zoo. The zoo worked hard to bring the species back. They increased their flock’s number in the zoo first, before eventually re-releasing them back into the wild.

The California Condor Today

Today there are more than 400 California condors, a number that hasn’t been reached since the 1930s. Of that number, around 200 are living in the wild, while the rest remain in captivity.

The exact number of California condors living in Zion National Park isn’t known. But rangers do believe that there is just one breeding pair in the park at this time. That’s why recent suspected hatching is so exciting. It could be the beginning of a comeback for the species in the park.

Because they were suspected to be a breeding pair, the behaviors and habitat of these two condors have been closely monitored by park officials. That’s why recent behavior changes were quickly noticed. Rangers already knew that the pair had laid an egg in their nest, which is located on the cliff face of the Minotaur Tower. This tower is located to the north of Angels Landing. The female and male condors had begun taking turns sitting on the nest, which indicated that they had an egg. Now, recent behavior changes suggest the egg has hatched.

This actually isn’t the first time in recent history that a condor chick has hatched in the park. Three were hatched previously, but none survived until they were old enough to fly. Two of the other hatchlings came from the same female condor. She had previously been paired with a different male who became sick from lead poisoning in June of 2016. Despite efforts to treat him, he died a short time later.

The female and current male are suspected to have been together for about two years. This is their first egg. If this chick does survive, it will be the first successful hatchling in the wild in Utah in nearly 100 years.

Doing Your Part to Protect Endangered Species

While a visit to Zion or other national, state, or local parks in the area are a great chance to catch a glimpse at these fascinating creatures before it’s too late, it also comes with some responsibility. Park guests are expected to do their part to protect the parks and the animals that call them home.

The ‘Leave No Trace’ rule doesn’t just help to keep the landscape beautiful; it’s also important for protecting wildlife. Animals scavenge leftovers, whether they are edible or not. Eating human-food frequently can leave a wild animal accustomed to being fed, which will reduce their ability to hunt and forage on their own. Plastic and other trash can also be deadly if animals ingest it or become tangled up in it.

Practicing legal, safe hunting in the region will also help prevent deadly lead poisoning.

By doing your part, you can help ensure that future generations can enjoy what will hopefully be even more frequent sightings of California condors, desert tortoises, and other rare and beautiful species.