The California condor (Gymnogyps californianus ), a vulture with a 9.5-foot wingspan, is the largest flying bird in North America. Its size alone has inspired awe and admiration for centuries, reflected in journal entries from the westward expedition of Lewis and Clark in which they marveled at the size of the "buzzards." For many Native peoples of western North America, including the Chumash and Pomo, the power of California condors has held a place of enduring cultural and ceremonial importance, reflected in art, medicine, and regalia such as robes and ceremonial headdresses.
The entwined natural history of condors and humans is long. We were sharing the landscape as the last glaciers retreated more than 10,000 years ago, while California condors probably fed on the carcasses of woolly mammoths and sabertooth cats. The huge birds are highly adaptable, surviving dynamic environmental changes as the glacial ice melted, and, until the nineteenth century, inhabiting climates and ecosystems as diverse as the Southwest's sun-scorched deserts and the Pacific Northwest's coastal river basins. However, the arrival of Europeans in North America brought changes so rapid and drastic that condors could not adapt fast enough. The principal threat to condors is currently lead poisoning, though wanton shooting, collection of condor eggs and birds, habitat degradation, and power lines all have played a role in the decline of the California condor.
Here at Pinnacles National park, California condors nested in the High Peaks until the early twentieth century, and were occasionally seen flying over the peaks until the last of the wild birds was captured in the mid 1980's. The captured birds were used to start captive breeding programs at the Los Angeles Zoo and San Diego Wild Animal Park, which now supply juvenile condors for release into the wild at a handful of sites in southern and central California, as well as one in Baja California Norte, Mexico. In 2003, Pinnacles National park became one of these release sites.
Biologists hope that releasing captive-bred condors at Pinnacles will encourage California condors to reinhabit this part of their historic range, and restore a missing element to Pinnacles' ecosystem. Release of captive-bred birds at Pinnacles will continue until a population of 20 to 30 free-flying condors is established. Management of the condors, which includes testing blood for lead levels, radio tracking and providing food, will be sustained for three to fifteen years.
Pinnacles National park, a unit of the National Park Service, is working with Ventana Wilderness Society and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make the Pinnacles reintroduction successful. Ventana's and Pinnacles' biologists operate the release site and manage the released condors at the park, drawing upon the expertise of Ventana Wilderness Society, a nonprofit organization that has been releasing California condors at Big Sur since 1997. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages condor recovery efforts and operates a release site at Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge, advises Pinnacles' biologists, particularly about technical and legal compliance.
The reintroduction of condors at Pinnacles is a single piece of the larger California condor recovery effort, which encompasses all the participating release sites, breeding facilities and research institutions. The Peregrine Fund operates a release site in Arizona near the Grand Canyon and a captive breeding facility in Boise, Idaho at theWorld Center for Birds of Prey. A new captive breeding facility is just getting started at the Oregon Zoo, using birds donated from the Los Angeles Zoo and San Diego Wild Animal Park. In addition, numerous federal, state, and nonprofit organizations support the California condor recovery effort and its associated public education programs. In addition to the work of all these groups, the California condor needs public support in order to make a successful comeback. The fate of the California condor -- and all endangered species -- is dependent on the compassion and concerned action of humanity.