Sequoia National Park is celebrating "an important milestone": the return of California condors for the first time in almost 50 years. The largest land bird in North America long ago occupied the Sierra Nevada mountains, where giant sequoia trees provided ideal cavities for nests. But there were only 22 birds left in the wild by the 1980s; they were captured for their protection and used to start a breeding program that has raised the count to more than 1,000 chicks and condors, some living in parts of "Ventura, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo, Kern, Tulare, Fresno and Madera counties and the Sierra Nevada mountains and adjacent foothills," per the Los Angeles Times. The birds, with a 9.5-foot wingspan, have been seen flying over Sequoia National Park in recent years. But they finally touched down in late May, 28 years after the species was first released back into the wild.
"The animal was on the brink of extinction, and arrival in Sequoia is good evidence that they are utilizing and occupying habitat where they once lived," says Sequoia biologist Tyler Coleman. Six birds were spotted—two near the hiking destination of Moro Rock, and four in Giant Forest, officials say. Dave Meyer, a biologist at the Santa Barbara Zoo, was able to track some of the birds to the trees and cliffs of Giant Forest as they were equipped with GPS transmitters. "We are excited that park employees observed the birds and confirmed their use of this important historic habitat," he says, per CBS News. There are now thought to be about 340 condors in the wild. Lead poisoning is a major cause of decline for the birds, which feed on animal carcasses. A state ban on lead ammunition went into effect last year, per National Geographic. (Read more Sequoia National Forest stories.)