Ask the Zookeeper: “Are California condors still endangered?”

Santa Barbara Zoo has four adult condors on exhibit.

Condors remain highly endangered birds

Ask the Zookeeper


 “Are California condors still endangered?” – Estelle, age 11

Condors have soared in the skies since a time when wooly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers roamed the earth, but by 1987 they numbered only 27 birds.

The California condor is now making its way back from near-extinction thanks to conservation efforts, including captive breeding in zoos. There are now more than 460 California condors, of which more than half are flying free in California, the southwestern U.S. and Baja California.

That is good news, but they are still among the world’s most endangered birds.

Lead poisoning is their leading cause of death. Condors are scavengers and eat animal remains, including those that have been shot in the wild. Lead fragments can be left behind after the meat is removed from a carcass, or if an animal dies after being shot. Lead stays in the birds’ systems, poisoning them over time.

Another challenge is microtrash — broken glass, bottle caps, plastic and bullet casings, for example. These objects attract the curious birds and may be mistaken for bone, but they cannot be digested properly. If passed among food that an adult feeds to its chick, microtrash can become lodged in the young bird’s system, preventing it from digesting food, and it can starve.

In addition, condor pairs produce only one egg at a time, and a condor chick will stay with its parents for up to a year to “learn the ropes.” So, most breeding pairs can produce, at most, one egg every two years. For most pairs, it is even less often, so it takes time for the population to grow.

But the numbers are increasing, and condors are breeding in the wild again. California condor recovery partners, including the zoo, are closely monitoring the birds, especially chicks, for lead poisoning or microtrash ingestion. Hunters and sportspersons throughout the condor’s range are increasingly using alternative ammunition, such as copper bullets. Volunteers are picking up microtrash and helping keep “Condor Country” safe for these gigantic birds.

Come visit our four adult female condors in California Trails in the zoo’s hilltop aviary. You can also learn about our birds and see live streaming video from a wild condor nest at

– Carol, Assistant Curator of Birds


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