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California Condor: Saving the King of the Birds

The majestic condor, sacred to tribes in both North and South America, could be lost in the U.S. if the Endangered Species Act is de-funded.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is famous for working at the intersection of scientific study of birds and amateur bird watching. This dual focus enables crowdsourcing of bird sightings all over the world. Sometimes, the Cornell Lab’s work treads outside of science and recreation and into politics and religion.

The latest project from Cornell (located in Ithaca, New York) is supporting work on the other side of North America, the California Condor Cam. The Condor Cam is set up to track the progress of a chick who represents the third try at parenthood for creatures that carry the less than exciting names of Father No. 206 and Mother No. 513.

The travails of these birds attempting to do this basic thing—carry their genetic heritage forward in time—are illustrated by the fates of the previous chicks. One perished in a rock fall and the other by “microtrash ingestion.” The reason this condor family gets a third try has to do with law, and law drags in politics.


The birds are nesting in Los Padres National Forest, federal property where all wildlife is supposed to be protected by law. Condors have been the beneficiaries of heroic scientific efforts to preserve their small population motivated by the Endangered Species Act. The politics of condor preservation is that the federal government is currently controlled by persons hostile to setting aside federal lands from the needs of developers and to the myriad limitations on economic activity that flow from the requirements of the Endangered Species Act.

The current online publication of the Cornell Lab, All About Birds, carries a remembrance by Hugh Powell of the foresight his father, Bob Powell, showed in taking his sons to see endangered California condors while there were still a few left to see. Bob Powell wrote in his bird journal after that trip, “I believe that by my death, the only remaining condors will be in zoos.” This journal entry, and the birding trip it memorialized, took place in 1981.

Hugh Powell, looking back on this, wrote recently:

At the time, as a 12-year-old kid, I thought we were just going on another of my dad’s adventures. I didn’t appreciate that he was seizing a moment, or that later in that same decade, these great vultures were going to vanish from the skies. Now I’m middle-aged, and condors are flying free once again, in 10 times their 1981 numbers. If not for the foresight of the Endangered Species Act, we would have lost this largest North American bird entirely.

Recovery programs have saved the Bald Eagle and the Peregrine Falcon, animals sacred to many tribes. By “saved,” I mean that self-sustaining breeding populations now exist in the wild. The California Condor is not saved. It is limping along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recovery program still running, a program that could die when we the people elect leaders who cannot see value in the millions of dollars that have been spent since the eighties to breed condor chicks in captivity and return the birds to the wild.

It’s in this calculation of what saving the species is worth that religion plays a minor role, minor because the genocide of California Indians was spectacularly successful, wiping out some tribes and rendering many of the survivors Roman Catholics, because mission Indians were under what protection the church could offer when there were bounties on indigenous men, women and children living outside the missions.

The traditional spiritual values of many California tribes held the California Condor to be a sacred animal. Disrespect for these traditional beliefs puts scientists in the forefront of condor preservation by default. It was not until 1982 that scientists learned to identify individual condors by molt patterns on their wings and it became possible to count them. The first count revealed there were only 21 condors left in the wild.

Radio tagging the 21 survivors led to dead birds and necropsy showed the most common cause of death to be lead poisoning. Measuring two isotopes of lead makes it possible to determine the source and virtually all the lead that is killing off the condors comes from the big birds feeding on the carcasses of animals shot by hunters but either left where they fell or allowed to escape.

While neither of those practices gets any respect among serious hunters, the banning of lead ammunition is perceived as anti-hunting and has become a difficult political lift. The numbers tell the bird advocates that lead poisoning would have to decline by 80 percent for the condors to have a self-sustaining population. At this time, the population is augmented by breeding in zoos and releasing, a process developed by studying the California Condor’s cousin, the Andean Condor.

Andean condors fly in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, Chile.

Andean condors fly in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, Chile.

The Andean Condor is sacred to Indians living today in the Andes, and we know it was sacred to the Inca Empire. One of the most spectacular surviving examples of Incan stonemasonry is the Temple of the Condor in Machu Picchu. The Inca believed that the condor, by movement of its giant wings, gathered the rainclouds that were the lifeblood of Incan agriculture.

Even those of us whose traditional stories involve Eagle rather than Condor are impressed to see a bird with an eight-foot wingspan gliding high over the mountain peaks it calls home. That sight originates with the hatchling whose progress you can follow on the California Condor Cam courtesy of Cornell University, an institution on the other side of the North American continent.

Should the current administration in Washington succeed in repealing or de-funding the Endangered Species Act, the only condors outside of zoos will reside in the Andes Mountains of South America.