Flying High

After helping to bring his species back from the brink, this California condor is wild once again.

Photo: USFWSAC-4 soars above Hudson Ranch, which later became Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge, in 1982

California condor AC-4 had a joyful homecoming last week when he soared back into the wild over the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge. For the last 30 years, this huge vulture has been helping to save his species in a captive breeding program.

In 1985, at five years old, AC-4 was one of the few California condors left on earth after lead poisoning and DDT had taken their toll on the birds. By 1987, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service had captured all 22 remaining wild California condors in an effort to rebuild the population. The recovery took off, and the bird is now one of the Endangered Species Act’s biggest success stories, with around 430 California condors alive today.

AC-4 has kept busy over the decades—after fathering the very first chick born in captivity to wild parents, he went on to sire 30 birds that were later released into the wild, making him the third most productive male in the program. AC-4 (who was re-tagged as California condor number 20 before his release) is now a mature 35 year old, but he’ll have plenty of time to stretch his wings—California condors can live to the ripe old age of 60.

Photo: USFWSAC-4 gets an ID photo before his release. Condor tail feathers are distinctive and can help biologists identify condors when other means fail.

Photo: USFWSAC-4 received a new tag prior to his release on December 29, 2015

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