Why Are California Condors Going Extinct? (What You Should Know)

Due to numerous human activities, California Condors are considered a Critically Endangered species — the birds are surviving, but are at high risk for extinction in the wild.

What are some of the reasons they are going extinct, and what can be done to stop this from happening?

California Condors are going extinct due to the impacts of hunting, farming, and urban development. Condors are not hunted today, but they are susceptible to lead poisoning from bullets when they scavenge carcasses left by hunters. Pesticides also pose a threat to condors, as do powerlines.

Why the California Condor Is Endangered

Ever since 1967, the California Condor has been considered an endangered species. The main reason for this is the influence of human activity on the habitat and diet of these birds.

Specifically, the introduction of lead ammunition and pesticides to condor habitats has been destructive to these populations on a mass scale. 

Impacts of Hunting on the California Condor

Hunting has historically been a major force behind the destruction of California Condor populations and remains a significant factor in the current suppression of condor populations. 

When Europeans expanded their territory into the Western United States, they hunted condors for food, as well as other animals like antelope and elk, taking away the condor’s food supply.

They also took and ate condor eggs, preventing them from repopulating an area. 

Lead Poisoning From Ammunition

Lead is highly toxic to birds and mammals, causing severe dysfunction of the nervous system when ingested.

When hunters use lead ammunition to kill other animals, the scavengers who feed on their leftover carcasses, like condors, will take in bits of metal as they eat. 

Even small amounts of ingested lead can be lethal to these birds. 

There have been numerous efforts to control the use of lead ammunition through legislation, some of which have been successful.

Although the transition to non-toxic bullets can be expensive and difficult, it reduces the risk of lead poisoning for both scavenger species and hunters. 

In some states, like Arizona, the government supplies non-toxic bullets to hunters and offers incentives to carry carcasses away from the place where they were shot. 

Impacts of Farming on the California Condor

The repurposing of forests and other habitats into agricultural land constitutes a threat to the California Condor because it decreases roosting areas and food availability.

The use of pesticides in farming is also particularly taxing on condor populations.

Pesticides

The pesticide DDT poses a risk to California Condor populations because it breaks down eggshells, reducing their thickness to the point that the eggs never develop into functional young birds.

Ingested pesticides of all kinds can also cause sickness in adult California Condors.

Impacts of Urban Development on the California Condor

The expansion of urban development in rural areas has decreased the available habitat of the California Condor, and it’s introduced additional new threats to the species, like micro trash, powerlines, and wind turbines.

Ingesting Microtrash

California Condors have been known to ingest foreign bodies like glass fragments, plastic cartridges, and wire.

As human activity has expanded in California Condor territory, more foreign objects have been introduced and consumed by condors. 

Often, these foreign objects are brought into the nest and then ingested by young condors.

Where adult condors will simply regurgitate foreign bodies, these same foreign bodies can get stuck in the young condors’ gastrointestinal systems, causing impaction followed by starvation. 

Powerlines and the California Condor

Powerlines pose a risk to California Condors in flight unless they have gone through aversion training.

Condors raised in captivity are taught to avoid powerlines and human activity so that they have better chances of survival.

Otherwise, they might be electrocuted when they fly into or perch on powerlines and poles.

Young hatchlings born from those who have had aversion training don’t learn their parents’ wisdom, however, so powerlines continue to threaten new generations of condors. 

Other strategies used to reduce the risk of electrocution for condors and other birds include encasing wires in insulation, improving the visibility of the wires, and burying wires underground wherever possible. 

Wind Turbines and the California Condor

Wind turbines pose a risk of collision for the California Condor, especially as they grow in number in rural areas and as condors expand their range.

Although no condor deaths have been witnessed at a wind farm, there have been numerous Bald Eagle deaths, and the likelihood of condor deaths is high. 

For this reason, the U.S. government has proposed a plan that would offset the deaths of condors at wind farms by requiring wind energy suppliers to fund condor conservation programs in exchange for the use of the land. 

Diseases Impacting the California Condor

In addition to human influences decreasing the size of California Condor populations, several diseases have impacted the ability of the species to survive.

Notably, the West Nile Virus and Avian Influenza have threatened the condors’ recovery as they’ve been reintroduced to the wild. 

How Close Are California Condors to Extinction?

According to the Red List, published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), California Condors are considered a Critically Endangered species.

Very few remain in the wild, and although population sizes are increasing, they’re still quite vulnerable to extinction. 

What Does It Mean To Be Critically Endangered?

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species is the international standard for conservation status, with nine distinct standings assigned to different species. These are the following:

  • Not Evaluated: The IUCN has not assessed these species. 
  • Data Deficient: Insufficient information exists about these species.
  • Extinct: No members of these species are alive, in the wild or captivity.
  • Extinct in the Wild: These species only exist in captivity.
  • Critically Endangered: These species are extremely likely to become extinct in the wild.
  • Endangered: These species are very likely to become extinct in the wild.
  • Vulnerable: These species are likely to become extinct in the wild.
  • Near Threatened: These species are likely to become vulnerable in the future.
  • Least Concern: These species are not at high risk of extinction.

The California Condor had previously been considered Extinct in the Wild, and due to conservation practices, have become Critically Endangered.

This means that populations now exist in the wild, but they are so small and vulnerable that they could easily be wiped out, even more so than species simply listed as Endangered. 

How Many California Condors Remain in the Wild?

As of 1979, there were only 25-35 California Condors alive in the wild and only one in captivity.

When the number of wild condors dropped to 10 in the early 1980s, conservation programs began to breed condors in captivity for release. 

Conservationists would collect condor eggs and mature birds alike, and in 1987, all 27 surviving condors lived in captivity.

As of 2017, the California Condor population had swelled to 460, with 170 living in the wild, which is due to the impact of the many conservation programs that released condors back to the wild.

However, California Condors are still considered critically endangered due to population numbers and continued and growing threats to their existence.

Final Thoughts

The California Condor is considered Critically Endangered due to the impacts of hunting, pesticides, wind turbines, and powerlines.

These birds were previously Extinct in the Wild, but conservation programs based on breeding in captivity and releasing them to the wild have brought the species back from the brink of full extinction. 

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