A Record Number of Condor Chicks Hatched in the Southwest This Year

Biologists captured this 'precious' photo of a condor nest just north of Angels Landing at Zion National Park after scaling a nearby cliff. National Park Service

The condor may be to California what the bald eagle is to America: a high-flying symbol of strength and independence — with a bit of a weird streak.

But for a while, it seemed this breathtaking bird would fade forever into the California sunset.

By 1982, the ravages of hunting, habitat encroachment and lead poisoning had reduced their numbers to a mere 22. That spelled the end of independence for these raptors. Five years later, the last of their kind were living in the Peregrine Fund's captive breeding program.

It was a necessary measure — and, ultimately, a successful one. There are four wild population areas of condors, according to the National Park Service: Baja California, Mexico; Central California; Southern California; and Southwestern U.S. Now, the population has reached more than 500 individuals, with 312 of them living in the wild. A species that had once called much of North America home has begun to spread its wings again.

Now in 2019, the Grand Canyon National Park documented the fifth wild-hatched California condor chick in October, making it a record number of chicks in the Southwest for a year.

The nestling, identified as Number 1005, is estimated to have hatched on May 9 from a mating pair with stud numbers 423 at O'Neill Butte, the park announced in a news release.

"We knew that the parents were exhibiting nesting behavior, and it took us a few months to locate it," said Wildlife Biologist Miranda Terwilliger, Grand Canyon's condor project manager. "One of our long time volunteers Bob George, known as Condor Bob, found the nest and chick."

Secretive parents

Also in May, scientists suspected babies had been hatched in Utah's Zion National Park.

But it took months of detective work to confirm the baby with the designation Number 1,000 was even in the world. Because in addition to being fiercely independent, condors build their homes far from prying eyes, often nesting in remote caves and sheer cliffs.

A condor at Zion National Park
Condors are the hermits of the bird kingdom, often nesting on solitary peaks. National Park Service

"You know, condors can be secretive," Janice Stroud-Settles, a wildlife biologist at Zion National Park, told The Guardian.

Indeed, biologists had to sleuth out their presence, often casing their rocky and remote neighborhoods for signs of new family members..

Ultimately, a condor couple — designated 409 and 523 — gave themselves away when they started taking turns leaving the nest for food.

"While incubating their egg, the condors would switch nest-sitting duties every three to four days but now they are switching almost every day," Zion National Park explained in a Facebook post in May. "Recent behavior changes from these condors have given park biologists reason to believe the egg has hatched."

In the end, scientists had to scale a cliff across from the family's cave to finally get photographic proof that baby 1,000 was officially in the world.

"When we confirmed it ... it was just this feeling of overwhelming joy," Stroud-Settles told The Guardian.

A condor at Zion National Park
With their numbers surging beyond 500, the California condor has come a long way since the early 1980s. National Park Service

And the baby designated 1,001? That squeaking bundle of feathers has already been confirmed, born to parents bred in captivity at the Grand Canyon.

Still, it isn't all blue skies for the California condor. Classified as critically endangered on IUCN's Red List, these raptors rely on dedicated conservation efforts.

"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," Chris Parish, conservation director for The Peregrine Fund noted in a press release. "We have a long way to go, but today we celebrate this milestone."