The California condor is North America’s largest bird, a powerful (if not conventionally beautiful) creature that feasts on carrion and can soar to heights of 15,000 feet. In 1982, just 22 of these impressive animals remained in the world, their populations decimated by a slew of human-related factors: lead poisoning, habitat destruction, pollution and hunting. So wildlife experts were thrilled to confirm that a new baby California condor had hatched within the cliffs of Utah’s Zion National Park, making it the 1000th chick to hatch since the launch of an official breeding program to save the species in the ’80s.
According to the National Park Service and the Associated Press, the egg likely was laid in mid-March and hatched at the beginning of May. It took some time to affirm the chick’s birth because California condors nest in caves atop steep, hard-to-access cliffs. Janice Stroud-Settles, a wildlife biologist at Zion National Park, tells Maanvi Singh of the Guardian that park workers recently noticed one condor couple seemed to be taking turns scavenging for food, suggesting that they had hatched a chick. Researchers could only get a closer look by rappelling off a cliff across from the nest—at which point they snapped a photo of the baby bird and verified its existence.
“When we confirmed it…it was just this feeling of overwhelming joy,” Stroud-Settles says.
Russ Norvell of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources called the hatching of the 1,000th chick a “monumental milestone in the condor recovery program” in the National Park Service announcement. The birds soared across much of North America in ancient times, but their population plummeted in the 19th century. In 1979, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began the California Condor Recovery Program, and in 1987, when the population totaled a mere 27 condors, wildlife officials captured the surviving wild birds and made them part of an existing captive breeding program. In 1992, the condor recovery program started to release the birds back into the wild.
Today, California condors can be found across a relatively small range in California, Arizona, Utah and northern Mexico. Their population, including the recently hatched chick, now numbers around 500, including both wild and captive birds.
The 1000th chick’s mother, “condor 409,” and father, “condor 523,” were both born in captivity. Each bird was eventually released into the wild at Arizona’s Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, just south of the Utah state line. California condors are monogamous, and the pair of birds has been together for two years, following the death of the female’s first mate from lead poisoning.
Condor 409 has hatched two other chicks, but neither survived. Experts hope that the new baby will be the first of her offspring to successfully fledge, or grow enough to acquire flight feathers and foray out of the nest.
Though things are looking up for the California condor, the species continues to be classified as critically endangered by the IUCN and faces ongoing threats to its survival, including human encroachment on the birds’ habitats and “micro-trash” like broken glass, which condors will try to eat. But the biggest threat to condors is the metal lead. Lead bullets fragment into hundreds of pieces when they hit a target, so when condors feed on the carcasses of animals shot with lead bullets, the birds ingest the poisonous metal.
Earlier this month, California became the first state to ban lead ammunition for hunting. According to the Guardian’s Singh, conservationists in Utah and Arizona are taking a gentler approach due to fears of disgruntling hunters; they hope to discourage the use of lead ammunition through education, rather than legislation. “Ink on paper doesn’t necessarily change behavior,” Chris Parish, director of global conservation at the Peregrine Fund tells Singh.
Parish acknowledges that there is still “a long way to go” to secure the future of the California condor. But he also notes that the hatching of the 1000th chick is an opportunity to reflect on how far the species has come in recent decades, thanks to the efforts of conservationists.
“[T]oday,” Parish says, “we celebrate this milestone.”