We had a geology field trip to Pinnacles National Park today. We spent most of the time on the rocks, of course, but I couldn't help but keep an eye out for birds, especially the elusive California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus). The nation's newest national park is one of the new homes for a bird that only thirty years ago was extinct in the wild.
The Condor once soared over much of the continent, but the extinction of the megafauna 12,000 years ago was the beginning of their decline. By the time of European occupation of the western United States, the population may have been down to a few hundred individuals. Habitat loss and ingestion of lead shot from dead carcasses decimated the remaining population and by the 1980s the entire population was down to a mere 27 individuals. The last of the wild population was captured in a desperate attempt to propagate the species through captive breeding.
The survival of the species hung by a thread, but very slowly the captive population grew and by the mid-1990s, the first of the captive-bred birds were released back into the wild. Populations were established in several widely separated localities in California, Arizona, and northern Mexico. The first Condors were released at Pinnacles National Park in 2003. In 2017, the total world population was 463, and there were more birds in the wild than there were in captivity.
As I noted before, I was watching for Condors, but I wasn't seeing any. It wasn't until we were gathered at the vans in the late afternoon preparing to leave the park that one of my students pointed up above, and there were five of them wheeling and soaring in the sky almost overhead. It was the closest I've been to them in California (I've had some close encounters at Grand Canyon National Park). It was a fine ending to a very nice day!