A lone California condor flew into the United States from Mexico last week, apparently on an exploratory, 160-kilometer journey from its home in the remote mountains of Baja California. Although the bird stayed only 3 days in San Diego County, its arrival marks the first documented sighting of a wild California condor in the area in nearly a century and suggests that recovery efforts for the once highly endangered bird may attain a key goal: re-establishing a population that spans Baja to central California. "It's a momentous occasion," says Mike Wallace, an ornithologist and the team leader of the California Condor Recovery Program at the San Diego Zoo.
Dubbed the "bird with one wing in the grave," the California condor nearly went extinct in the late 20th century. In 1983, only 22 birds were left in the wild. But captive breeding efforts by the San Diego Zoo have paid off: Since 1992, the recovery program has been releasing young condors into protected areas of California and Arizona. In 2002 and 2005, it freed a total of 10 captive-raised condors in Baja's Sierra San Pedro Martir range, where the birds had survived until 1945. There are now 280 California condors, with 135 living in the wild in California, Arizona, and Mexico.
The bird that made the flight last week was hatched in 2004 at the San Diego Zoo and released in Baja the following year. Young condors are known for their exploratory flights. "They're more adventurous," notes Wallace, adding that in 2005, three 4-year-old condors from the Baja population flew within 24 km of the border. Ultimately, the Recovery Program hopes to re-establish the scavenging birds throughout their former range, from Baja to the Canadian border.
But although the flight is encouraging, it should not be taken as a sign that California condors are ready to resume a free and wild life on their own, some caution. "I fear for them," says Steve Beissinger, a conservation biologist at the University of California, Berkeley. "If they stay, they're very likely to encounter lead-tainted food," such as the carcasses of animals shot by hunters. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) in San Francisco and other groups have sued the California Fish and Game Commission for not banning the use of lead bullets, which are toxic to the birds. "Until we end the use of lead ammunition, condors will not be safe in the wild," says CBD spokesperson Jeff Miller.