(WHTM) — On April 19, 1987, the California condor went extinct in the wild. It was the only way to save the species.

California condors (Gymnogyps californianus) are enormous — North America’s largest land birds. They weigh up to 25 pounds and have a wingspan of about 9.5 feet. They are scavengers, not really capable of hunting.

Condors of the genus Gymnogyps once ranged across the entire continent of North America. It was during the Pleistocene Era when the megafauna was truly mega. You had mammoths, mastodons, ground sloths, giant beavers…lots of animals that went large. Lots of big animals meant lots of big animal carcasses; it was a good time and place to be a large carrion-eating scavenger.

But towards the end of the Pleistocene about 10,000 years ago, North America suffered a mass die-off of large mammals. It happened very abruptly in geological terms, over just about 2,000 years. The range of the Gymnogyps genus shrank.

By the time European settlers started arriving, only the California condor was left, and just along the west coast from British Columbia to Baja California. By 1940, the condors’ range was down to coastal mountains in southern California. Humans were now definitely the driving force in the condors’ decline by encroachment on condor territory, pesticides, and especially lead poisoning caused when the condors scavenged carcasses containing fragments of lead bullets. The International Union for Conservation of Nature classified it as “critically endangered” — one step away from extinct.

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began the California Condor Recovery Program in 1979. By the mid-1980s, though, the condors were down to less than 30 birds, and it became obvious the birds couldn’t be saved if left to themselves in the wild.

In 1987, the Fish and Wildlife Service captured all the remaining birds (the last one being taken on April 19), and transferred them to captive breeding facilities at the San Diego Wild Animal Park and Los Angeles Zoo.

There were only 22 of them then.

The hope was the recovery project would be able to establish two geographically separate populations in California and Arizona. Each would have 150 birds and at least 15 breeding pairs. But California condors are notoriously slow breeders. They don’t reach sexual maturity until around age six, and a mated pair will produce just one egg every other year.

Getting the numbers up would take a while. Fortunately, the birds will “double clutch” — if an egg is lost or destroyed, the female will lay a second egg. Biologists could remove the first egg which, upon hatching in an incubator, would be fed and raised by people using hand puppets so the chick wouldn’t imprint on humans. Meanwhile, the condors would raise the second chick.

By 1991, there were enough adolescent condors that it was possible to start releasing birds into the wild. In 2003, a nestling fledged in the wild — the first since 1981. More breeding facilities came online, like the Santa Barbara and Oregon zoos, Chapultepec Zoo in Mexico City, and the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho. Condors were released in additional locations, and by 2008 more condors were in the wild than in captivity.

The 2021 World California Condor 2021 Population Update lists a total world population of 537. Of those birds, 203 are in the captive breeding population. The other 334 are flying free.

Much more progress needs to be made. The condor is still listed as critically endangered. Humans continue to be the main danger to the birds. Biologists are especially concerned about lead poisoning.

The Fish and Wildlife Service reports from 1992 through 2021, there were 120 documented deaths from lead poisoning, which accounted for “51 percent of the 234 condor deaths where a cause of death has been determined in the free flying population.” California began a total ban on lead ammunition for hunting in 2019.

But despite the setbacks, with almost 25 times as many birds now as when the captive breeding program started, the future for the California condor looks much more promising than it did 35 years ago.

To read the 2021 report on the condors, click here.

Information in this story came from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Wikipedia.