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California Condors’ Comeback | Protecting the Wild

August 15, 2022
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The California condor episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom Protecting the Wild took the crew to Oregon and California. Learn about how condors came back from near extinction in this episode sneak peek before it airs in January 2023.

For more sneak peeks of our new series episodes, visit these other behind the scenes articles.

condor filming wild kingdom condor filming wild kingdom

Back from Extinction

In the 1980s, the California condor population was in crisis and extinction seemed imminent.

Their dramatic decline was attributed to shooting, poisoning and habitat loss. But thanks to the work of conservation organizations like the Oregon and Santa Barbara zoos, the Yurok Indian Tribe’s Northern California Condor Restoration Program and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge, the California condor is making a comeback. There are now 530 condors in the wild in Utah, California, Arizona and Baja California, Mexico.

Wild Kingdom host Peter Gros met with researchers of each group to film an episode about “nature’s clean up crew.” The episode will focus on:

  • Breeding programs
  • Capture and release programs
  • Educational programs about the use of lead vs non-lead bullets, as 51% of all condor deaths are lead related

Condor Breeding Programs

The Oregon Zoo has an active captive breeding program. Kelli Walker, the senior keeper of the zoo’s California Condor Project, said 108 condors have hatched since 2004, 13 of which have hatched at the zoo this year.

condor filming wild kingdom condor filming wild kingdom

Condors breed every year and typically lay a single egg until they reach a maximum breeding age of 8-10 years. The chick takes 57 days to hatch and then the condors take 5-6 months before they fledge. The young birds stay with their parents for about 18 months to learn how to be a condor.

The team at the zoo tries to keep the condors as wild as possible — their only interaction with animals is when the birds receive their vaccinations. That way, the zoo can reach their ultimate goal of releasing the condors to the wild. “I feel lucky to be able to work with such a critically endangered species,” Walker said. “But I hope to work myself out of a job someday when condors are plentiful in the wild.”

Condor Release Programs

Tiana Williams and Chris West from the Yurok Tribe’s Northern California Condor Restoration Program in Redwood National Park spoke to Peter Gros and the crew about the ecological and spiritual significance of the condors to the Yurok tribe. Condors have distinct personalities and there’s a hierarchy among condors. The older condors in breeding and rearing facilities teach young condors the social groups they would have in the wild.

condor filming interview wild kingdom condor filming interview wild kingdom

The Yurok Tribe believes that the Creator saw inside the condor (known as Preygoneesh) and found him to be kind-hearted and a pure, creative spirit. The song of the condor carries prayers from all over the world to the Creator. Condors have been missing from the Northern California ecosystem for 130 years, which left an imbalance physically and spiritually in the world.

“Humans are part of the larger ecosystem and must act as caretakers of the land. It is our duty to maintain a balance to return the world to health and vitality,” Williams said.

condor filming wild kingdom bitter creek

Peter also assisted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife team at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge with health checkups of 15 wild condors, which typically are done twice a year. The checkups include:

  • Blood draw to sample lead levels
  • Muscle condition screen
  • Weight gain/loss
  • Check/replace tags and transmitters
  • Feather checks for signs of trauma, malnutrition and lead exposure

condor health checks wild kingdom condor health checks wild kingdom

condor health checks wild kingdom condor health checks wild kingdom

After the checkups, each bird is released back to the wild — a magnificent sight!

According to Estelle Sandhaus, director of conservation and science at the Santa Barbara Zoo, there are 91 total condors at the refuge and they are expanding their range in the Southern Sierras.

Condor Educational Programs — Get the Lead Out!

Peter’s visit to Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge wrapped up with a shooting demonstration by Chad Thomas of the Institute for Wildlife Studies. Thomas showed the effects of lead vs non-lead bullets on wildlife.

california condor bullet comparison wild kingdom condor filming wild kingdom

The lead bullets fragment upon impact. If a condor eats an animal that has been killed by a lead bullet, it will have detrimental effects on the bird. But Thomas was quick to point out that education about a better bullet isn’t just a condor conservation issue — but a human one.

Lead fragments can often be found in deer meat or fowl that humans eat too. Copper bullets are a more responsible way of hunting, and more hunters and ammunition manufacturers are getting on board —good news for the wild kingdom!

Condor Fun Facts

  • Condors are the largest avian scavengers in North America — the reason for the nickname “nature’s clean-up crew.”
  • Condors have incredibly powerful beaks that can cut through hides of dead and decaying animals, which reduces the prevalence of disease and brings nutrients back into circulation.
  • Condors have life-long partners and parents contribute to their welfare.
  • The wingspan of an adult condor can reach 9.5 feet.

condor flying wild kingdom

 

View the California condor and other animal success stories when Protecting the Wild premieres in January 2023. If you enjoyed this behind the scenes look, check out these other Protecting the Wild sneak peeks.

 

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