With a wingspan of almost 10 feet, the California condor is the largest bird in the United States. It’s also one of the longest-lived species, often living 60 years. Once upon a time, it was a common sight in the West, but in recent decades, it has become exceedingly rare. In fact, without direct intervention from conservationists, this majestic vulture would have probably disappeared. (Though let's be honest: Not everybody thinks they’re pretty.)

By the early 1980s, the known population of California condors had reached an all-time low of 22 individuals. Conservationists decided to capture them all and create a captive breeding program to increase their numbers to a level that could be self-sustaining in the wild. By 1987, all California condors had been captured and the species became technically extinct in the wild. The captive birds were bred at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and the Los Angeles Zoo. After four years, some individuals were released to the wild, bringing the species back to the Pacific Coast.

A California Condor with a numbered tag attached to its wing.A California condor with a numbered tag attached to its wing. (Photo: Wikipedia)

It took two more decades, until 2011, for the wild condor population to surpass the captive group, and it took until now for the next important milestone to be reached: For the first time in decades, more condors hatched and fledged in the wild last year than adult wild condors died, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. There were 14 young condors added to the population and 12 deaths. This is significant because it means that, in theory, the wild condor population could sustain itself without the captive breeding program. Of course, conservationists will wait to have a bigger margin of safety before stopping the breeding program, but it's still a crucial moment.

The red stars show sites where captive-bred condors are released into the wild.The red stars show sites where captive-bred condors have been released into the wild. (Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

Currently, there are 268 condors in the wild and 167 in captivity. Nests found in nature numbered 27, with the majority being located in California. The map above shows their current, diminished range. (It used to be much bigger, stretching from Canada to Mexico.)

One of the current threats to the California condors is lead poisoning from bullets fired by hunters. Of the 12 deaths in the wild last year, two were linked to lead, and this is despite a law passed in 2008 placing a partial ban on the use of lead ammunition in any condor habitat.

Condors can fly as high as 15,000 feet, and they travel about 150 miles each day to look for carcasses to eat. Like other vultures, they have an important role to play in ecosystems, acting as the cleanup crew. If you want to learn more, this short documentary by the Oregon Zoo and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service tells the tale of the California condor and of the heroic efforts by conservationists to save it:

Michael Graham Richard ( @Michael_GR ) Michael writes for MNN and TreeHugger about science, space and technology and more.