The Incas' Sacred Bird

The California condor's biggest cousin is the Andean condor, one of the largest flying land birds. Both birds belong to the New World vulture family Cathartidae, but they are different species. The Andean condor has a larger wingspan and is more aggressive. Reportedly, they kill newborn calfs and other little animals.

The Andean condor's range once extended throughout the Andes in South America, from Venezuela to Tierra del Fuego in Argentina. Today, it is exceedingly rare in Venezuela and Colombia, with declining populations in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. Some breeding and release programs exist, but the birds face an ongoing threat: illegal hunting. Many South Americans falsely believe the condors' meat, bones, or organs hold medicinal powers and help increase male virility.

In 1973, the Andean condor was placed on the endangered species list by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Biologists rear the birds in captivity in the San Diego Zoo and other facilities. But few people know that Andean condors were guinea pigs for the California condor recovery program.

In 1988, the Fish and Wildlife Service began a three-year reintroduction experiment using South American birds—only females, to prevent reproduction in the wild—equipped with radio transmitters. "From the beginning, it was our intent to recapture all of the females and send them to Colombia, where the native condor population was near extinction," says Lloyd Kiff, the condor recovery team leader at the time.

This experiment helped biologists improve release techniques and identify environmental threats before freeing the much more endangered California condor. But it had its cost: One of the South American condors died after it collided with a power line. Researchers gathered the others and returned them home to their mountainous range.