LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
With a wingspan of up to 10 feet, the California condor is one of the largest birds in North America and also one of the rarest. After the population plunged in 1982, all of the remaining birds were taken into captivity for safekeeping and breeding. From member station KJZZ in Phoenix, Stina Sieg reports on the annual release of young condors into the wild.
STINA SIEG, BYLINE: It's usually easy to miss the dirt road jutting north from a tiny highway near the Arizona-Utah border. But not this morning. It's a long line of cars rumbling toward lonely, rosy cliffs and the encampment of birdwatchers forming under them.
CHRIS PARISH: This is phenomenal. I think there are more vehicles here than we had people in some of the early releases.
SIEG: Chris Parish is with the Peregrine Fund, which has been reintroducing condors to Arizona for more than 20 years with the help of various organizations and state and federal agencies. Today, more than 750 condor groupies are here. One is Brigitte Le Vea.
BRIGITTE LE VEA: This is really, really, really special. I've been trying so hard all season to see a damn condor. And I'm finally here. And I'm so excited about it.
SIEG: That's even though the crowd is a half-mile away and a thousand feet below the four young birds waiting in a clifftop holding pen. Through spotting scopes, people are watching older condors that were released years ago swooping and sitting on rocks, unfurling their big, black wings. With their naked, pink necks, these scavengers sometimes get called ugly. But here people use a different word - charismatic.
LEE ANN MCADA: Oh, my God. How could they not be? It's like you look at those wings up there, and you look at those heads and how they soar. How could you not think that they're charismatic? They're gorgeous.
SIEG: Lee Ann McAda drove seven hours to be here all for something that could last two minutes or all day. When the pen is opened for the first time, you never know how long these birds will wait to take their first, free flight high over the desert.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Four, three, two, one.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: All right. Let's open them up.
SIEG: A biologist on the ground communicates to a biologist on the cliff a thousand feet above. It takes a moment to open the pen's door. But then a burst.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Oh. Oh, my God.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Holy cow. It never happens this fast.
SIEG: Three condors fly out almost immediately. Massive wings flapping against the sky. It's instant, elating gratification. And for Ron Brown, a park ranger at the Grand Canyon, it's deeply personal.
RON BROWN: I was in the hospital three weeks ago with a pretty major heart attack. This is - my first big thing was to come here because I knew that this just makes you feel alive.
SIEG: His late wife, Pat, thought so, too. Brown says the last time she was here, she was sick and probably didn't weigh 100 pounds. But she was glowing. Brown says that's the effect these birds and the effort to save them have on people.
BROWN: This kind of thing is human beings trying our best to say, together, we can do this.
SIEG: Soon, the fourth and final condor flies free. Thanks to interventions like this one, there are now nearly 500 California condors in the wild. For NPR News, I'm Stina Sieg reporting from Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, as well as in a previous Web version, we incorrectly say there are 500 California condors in the wild. About 300 are in the wild and 200 are in captivity in breeding programs, zoos and preserves.]
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.