SCIENTIFIC NAME: Gymnogyps californianus
HABITAT: Nests on cliffs, rock outcroppings and in caves; scavenges across areas ranging from oak savannahs to coniferous forests
LIFE HISTORY: Largest of North American vultures; feeds primarily on carcasses of large animals. Often mistakes bullet fragments in game for bone, which it ingests for supplemental calcium. "Thunderbird," in Native American legend.
THREATS: Poisoning from spent lead shot ingested when eating abandoned game
FORMER RANGE: Entire Western U.S. and parts of Mexico
CURRENT POPULATION: 138 wild birds
With a wingspan that can top nine feet, the magnificent California condor is the largest bird in North America. The condor is thought to have soared through American skies since the Pleistocene era, about 11,000 years ago; but by the 1980s, only 21 birds remained.
To save the condor from extinction, researchers took the remaining birds out of the wild and launched a captive breeding program. By 2002, 63 condors born in captivity had been successfully reintroduced into the wilderness. The wild condor population is now 138 birds, of which 69 live in California.
Despite the success of the breeding program, the reintroduced birds suffer from high mortality rates, mostly due to lead poisoning. Condors are scavengers, and ingest lead bullets while feeding on the remains of animals killed by human hunters. Because lead-free ammunition is widely available, NRDC petitioned the California Department of Fish and Game to end the use of lead ammunition in condor habitat. When that petition was denied, NRDC joined a broad coalition of groups, including Native American, conservation and health organizations, as well as California hunters, in filing a lawsuit against the commission and the Department of Fish and Game for continuing to allow the use of toxic lead ammunition. NRDC also supported the enactment of a law in 2007 that will ban the use of many types of lead ammunition in condor habitat. While the law is an important step towards saving this magnificent bird, many other kinds of lead ammunition are still used in condor habitat.