In a milestone for critically endangered species, a baby California condor has just hatched in San Diego

A person holds a large egg, belonging to a California condor at the San Diego Zoo

The California condor — the largest bird in North America — went extinct in the wild in 1987

But a new bundle of joy has just hatched at the San Diego Zoo, thanks to the conservation efforts of the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. 

The birth of this new chick marks the 250th egg to be hatched at the zoo. It was born to mom Mexwe, and dad Xol-Xol, the first California condor brought into human care under the California Condor Recovery Program in 1982.

A person holds a large egg, belonging to a California condor at the San Diego Zoo
Willis holds the egg containing Emaay. Photo courtesy of the Zoological Society of San Diego

When Xol-Xol was brought to the zoo, the population had dropped to a low of just 22 birds, making this milestone — over 40 years later — especially exciting. 

“Reaching this milestone feels incredible,” Nora Willis, senior wildlife care specialist at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, said in a press release

“Seeing the success… of the California Condor Recovery Program as a whole is really inspiring. There’s still a long way to go but being part of this and helping the species recover is life-changing.”

The chick, whose sex is not yet determined, has been named Emaay (pronounced “eh-my”), a Kumeyaay word for “sky.” 

Before hatching, Emaay (the egg version), was placed in an incubator to be closely monitored by a care team. The egg was also taken to a nearby medical center for a CT scan after a brief concern for “malposition,” but was given a clean bill of health and returned to Xol-Xol and Mexwe for hatching.

A large egg belonging to a California condor sits in a CT scan machine
The egg is scanned for malpositioning. Photo courtesy of the Zoological Society of San Diego

Wildlife care workers monitored infrared cameras around the clock, as the proud parents welcomed Emaay into the world from the privacy of their nest. Emaay was born on March 16, but just made their debut with a “hard launch” announcement nearly a month later. 

Under the recovery program at the zoo, Xol-Xol has fathered 41 chicks since 1993 — many of which have been reintroduced to their native habitat. Emaay is expected to join them in 2025.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, there are now approximately 275 free-flying condors in California, Utah, Arizona, and Baja California — and the conservation work of the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance has definitely played a role in this ongoing recovery. 

“The resurgence of the California condor is a conservation success story,” the zoo shared in a press release. “Today, there are more than 560 living California condors, with over half free flying.”

A baby California condor sits beside its parents
Baby Emaay is caught on an infrared camera shortly after her hatching. Photo courtesy of the Zoological Society of San Diego

The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the bird species as Critically Endangered, with populations increasing. However, major threats to their survival include lead poisoning, habitat loss, and emerging diseases, exacerbated by climate change. 

Beyond the San Diego program, there are four other reintroduction sites in the U.S., working to ensure these birds can return to their native habitats in Northern Arizona, Big Sur, Redwood National Park, and Los Padres National Forest

The San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance also works with partners in Mexico to restore the California condor population in the Sierra de San Pedro Mártir National Park in northern Baja California, Mexico, where condors lived until the mid-1950s.

Tribal governments have also been integral in the preservation and reintroduction of California condors, like the Yurok Tribe in Northern California.

Cross-partnership conservation efforts between tribal nations, the federal government, and conservation organizations like the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance are vital to the future of the species. 

Two California condors fly in the sky
Two California condors in the wild. Photo courtesy of Gavin Eammons/NPS

According to the Yurok Condor Restoration Program, they “endeavor to reestablish an apex scavenger that has been absent for more than a century, restore the balance and biodiversity that existed prior to Euro-American colonization of the region, and promote a thriving ecology for the benefit of wildlife and humans.”

As threats to the species continue, those living in areas where the California condor flies freely should observe from a distance to limit human disturbance when encountering the birds on public lands. 

That being said, if you do spot one in the wild, you can always visit condorspotter.com to see who it is.

And if you’re too far to see them in the sky, you can always check out the zoo’s Condor Cam — and maybe even catch a glimpse of baby Emaay.

Header image courtesy of the Zoological Society of San Diego

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