While most Americans were praying in churches on Easter Sunday 1987, scientists in California were completing a crucial task. Despite millions of dollars and years of conservational work to save the California Condor, this team of men and women had been forced to push the panic button. With the capture of AC-9, the last of the world's twenty-two remaining California Condors had been successfully extracted from the wild and placed into a strategic rebreeding program. The once widespread California Condor was now extinct in the wild - a conservational necessity that ultimately ensured the survival of the species into present day.
Long before the threats of human poaching and habitat destruction, the introductions of lead and DDT, and the construction of electric power lines, Gymnogyps californianus soared over the North American continent in vast numbers. In the age of megafauna, when imposing beasts such as giant beavers and saber-toothed cats roamed across the land, these avian scavengers had an abundance of carrion to devour. Over millions of years, however, climate change and human inhabitation vastly altered the hierarchy of animals. Megafauna could not adapt and disappeared, yielding the North American landscape to smaller species. As its historic contemporaries and closest relatives went extinct, the California Condor endured, representing the only surviving member of its genus.
In more than one way, the California Condor serves as a rare living reminder of the megafauna that once ruled the land. Weighing an average of 8.5 kilograms (19 pounds), Gymnogyps californianus is the heaviest bird in North American. While an average 125-centimeter (48-inch) length puts the species just short of the Trumpeter Swan and Mute Swan as the largest bird on the continent, it does have the largest wingspan at 2.75 meters (9 feet).
Unlike most fellow birds of prey, female California Condors are outsized by their male counterparts, measuring just smaller in every way. Aside from this example of sexual dimorphism, the two genders are similar in physical appearance. Both males and females have bodies covered in black plumage, with patches of white underneath their wings. Extending downward are two gray legs, ending in sharp talons better designed to walk on flat surfaces than grasp tree branches. Contrasting the densely feathered body is an almost completely bald head, with skin ranging in color from yellow to bright red depending on the individual's mood.
Aside from communicating emotions to other birds, the skin covering the California Condor's head aids the species in other ways. The absence of facial feathers is particularly convenient for a bird obsessed with its own hygiene. California Condors bathe themselves frequently and spend countless hours daily preening. Meanwhile, during flights at altitudes as high as 4,600 meters (15,000 feet), the bird absorbs high levels of solar ultraviolet radiation, which penetrates the exposed skin and serves as a natural sterilizer.
An airborne California Condor is a spectacle of serenity, reaching speeds of up to 90 kilometers per hour (55 miles per hour) with minimal flapping, aided mostly by thermals to gain altitude and speed. With wings outstretched, the act of flying seems effortless. On any given day, an individual can cover more than 160 kilometers (100 miles) in search of carrion, soaring high above the coniferous forests and cliffs where it will eventually land to eat and roost. It is only during the initial takeoff that this image of grace gives way to the appearance of clumsiness.
Impeded by an inconvenient combination of large flight muscles and a small sternum, California Condors struggle to lift their big bodies off of firm ground. For this reason, they prefer launching points at higher altitudes - such as tall trees or cliff clefts - to make the act of taking off a less exhausting task. For breeding California Condors, elevated rocky crevices and caves serve a dual purpose as ideal nesting sites, providing protection from predators and the elements in addition to accessibility with open spaces to launch and land.
Upon their maturation at the age of six, males commence courtship displays with hopes of wooing a partner for life. Puffing out the black feathers at the base of his neck and turning his facial skin a fierce shade of red, the male spreads his wings wide and walks toward the female, seeking to win her approval with his extravagant display. After a brief evaluation, the female makes one of two decisions: if she walks away, she has rejected her courter; if she lowers her head, she has chosen her mate.
After up to two months of incubation, a single blue hued egg begins to crack open. It may take up to one week, but eventually a small hatchling covered in gray down will completely emerge from its shell. Despite learning how to fly within six months, the chick will remain with its parents for two years, at which point it is displaced by a new clutch containing just one egg.
A low reproductive rate and late age of sexual maturity prevented the California Condor from ever becoming as populous as most smaller songbirds, yet the species always maintained sustainable numbers. For centuries, the large bird coexisted with North America's native human inhabitants, inspiring awe and myriad legends. It was not until the westward expansion of European settlers during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that the species endured rapid decimation.
Despite extensive and expensive conservation efforts - more than $35 million since World War II - the California Condor continued to freefall toward extinction as a result of poaching and egg collecting, DDT and lead poisoning, power line electrocutions, and habitat destruction. When the last twenty-two California Condors were captured in 1987, the rebreeding programs at the San Diego Wild Animal Park and Los Angeles Zoo suddenly shared the burden of a species' existence.
Fortunately, strategies were devised to accelerate breeding. By removing an egg from a nest, scientists succeeded in essentially tricking the parents into "double clutching" - when birds lay an additional egg to replace the one that has been lost. While the California Condor parents raised this second chick on their own, scientists employed hand puppets to raise the first chick that had been removed. Through this process, the reproductive rate was doubled, and Gymnogyps californianus was well on its way toward a rapid recovery.
Within five years of AC-9's capture, the species was reintroduced to the wild in California; by 1996, California Condors soared over the Grand Canyon for the first time in decades. Yet, it was not until 2003 that the first chick was successfully hatched since the reintroduction initiative began. Thanks to the tireless work of conservationists, nearly 350 birds are alive in 2010 - with almost 200 of those individuals in the wild. At least for the time being, the California Condor has evaded extinction and can look toward a promising future.
Rocky scrubland near cliffs, coniferous forests, and oak savannas
Protected regions of California and Arizona
Carrion of deer, bears, cougars, and large livestock
When bothered by hot temperatures, California Condors cool themselves by defecating on their only legs to reduce their own body temperature, a method known as urohidrosis.
During the California Gold Rush, California Condors were sometimes kept as pets.
On the California state quarter, a California Condor is depicted soaring high above John Muir gazing out over the Yosemite Valley.
Numerous indigenous tribes in North America told legends about the California Condor. The Yokut tribe claimed that the bird's outspread wings caused lunar eclipses, while the Chumash people believed its plumage was once white before being charred black after flying too close to a fire.
During feedings, social hierarchy dictates the order of eating: the elder dominant birds have first pickings, while the younger individuals must wait for leftovers.