Nature up close: Rescuing the California condor

Almost 40 years ago the California condor was near extinction. Today, they are on the rise.

This month biologists at Zion National Park in Springdale, Utah, announced that their efforts to restore the species have marked a milestone, with the hatching of the 1,000th California condor born as part of a captive breeding program.

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Almost 40 years ago there were 22 California condors left in the wild; today the species' population has increased dramatically. National Park Service

In 1982, the Southwest Condor Working Group, comprised of state and federal wildlife agencies and private partners, including The Peregrine Fund (which releases birds and monitors their population), captured the remaining wild condors and held them in captivity, beginning a breeding program that has dramatically improved their numbers.

Progress has been slow – a condor may have only one chick every two years – but in 1992 birds were reintroduced back into the wild in California, and later in Arizona.

Each condor, born in captivity or in the wild, is tracked by partners in the working group. Recently a pair of condors – a female that was hatched at the San Diego Zoo in 2006, and a male hatched at the Peregrine Fund's World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Ida. in 2009 – hatched a chick on the cliffs just north of Angels Landing in Zion National Park. The new arrival was identified as No. 1,000 in the program's roster of condor chicks.

Native to the Western and Southwest U.S., the birds had figured prominently in Native American myths. It has the largest wingspan of any North American bird (nearly 10 feet). Habitat destruction, lead poisoning and poaching are the chief causes of the condor's decline.

Thanks to the program, the population currently numbers more than 500 birds, with more than half of those in the wild.

Chris Parish, director of conservation for the Peregrine Fund, said, "After over two decades of efforts to restore condors to the southwest, it is nice to take a moment to reflect on the steady and slow progress made and thank those who have contributed so much, like Zion National Park, to see this effort through," adding, "We have a long way to go."

Nature: California condors

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  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at CBSNews.com and cbssundaymorning.com.