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One of the last condors alive freed

San Francisco — Banking into the wind and then gliding out of sight, a male California condor flew back into the wild after a captive breeding program that helped save North America’s largest species of land bird.

The 35-year-old bird named “AC-4” soared out of his open pen earlier this week at a canyon rim inside the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge, in central California’s Kern County. He had been one of just 23 condors left in the world in the 1980s.

SAVIOR OF THE SPECIES — AC-4, the 35-year-old condor that sired 30 chicks to help save the California condor species, is prepared for release into the wild on December 28, 2015 at the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge in central California’s Kern County. (AP)

SAVIOR OF THE SPECIES — AC-4, the 35-year-old condor that sired 30 chicks to help save the California condor species, is prepared for release into the wild on December 28, 2015 at the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge in central California’s Kern County. (AP)

It was the bird’s first free flight since 1985, when a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service team captured him near the same spot. It was part of a last-ditch attempt to stop the extinction of the California condor, which has a wing span of more than 9 feet.

AC-4 needed only a few minutes to get his bearings before flying out of the pen and over the canyon, said Joseph Brandt, a lead condor biologist with the wildlife service. Brandt was sitting on a hilltop nearby to watch the release.

“He kind of flew right past us. It was really incredible,” Brandt said by telephone Thursday.