Far in the distance, a dark spec is in the sky above the canyon. This spec takes shape as the figure comes closer. A massive black bird soars, getting larger and larger into view. The head is red and the underwings have white triangle patches. This huge, beautiful and ugly, yet graceful bird, flew over head, turned around on the wind and made another pass. Ever since the end of the Pleistocene epoch, about 11,700 years ago, California condors are the largest living flying thing over North America. They can have a wingspan of up to nine and a half feet and weigh up to twenty-five pounds. They soar using thermals that keep them aloft and go for miles without a single flap of their wings. In the ecosystem, they serve as Mother Nature’s cleanup crew, feeding on dead animals to prevent them from spreading disease to other wildlife and plants. The California condor is an endangered species. Humans play a direct role in the declining population of this giant prehistoric bird. The most attributed causes of their death include hunting, habitat loss, and lead poisoning.
The Pleistocene epoch was the California condors prime, they fed on mammals like mammoth, mastodon and sloth. Condors eat an average of 2-3 lbs at a feeding. Exactly how many California Condors once lived remains unknown. They were widely distributed and numerically abundant during these early times, known to live in Florida, Mexico, Texas, New Mexico, Nevada, and California. They ranged not only up and down most of the Pacific Coast but across parts of the Rocky Mountains and the Gulf Coast. Condor bones had been unearthed in Florida and in upstate New York. Their numbers decreased and their range moved to the Southwest and the West coast about 500 years ago. Today they are now restricted to one or two localities along with a numerable population of individuals within California. The human role started when the early hunters killed off most of the continents giant mammals, reducing food sources and moving them towards the West. In the 1800’s, gold seekers and loggers headed West and hit California with massive amounts of wagon trains. The miners destroyed the mountains which the condors soared in. The loggers cut down the trees where they perched on the big dead branches while looking around. The wagon trains created filthy and wretched settlements, which polluted rivers. These settlers also shot at everything they drove by, out of boredom and to pass the time. They shot at rocks, trees, bones, animals, and birds, along with Native Americans and each other. This drove most of these vultures to a small region in California. In the 1900’s up to modern times, from the Pacific to the mountains in California, almost every bit of the landscape has been terraformed or paved. The habitat that they lived in has shrunk severely. Another factor is poisons such as the Rodenticide Compound 1080, used by ranchers or DDT, used by farmers, both used in large quantities. This killed many condors and compromised their eggs by weakening them. Today, humans shoot the birds accidentally and illegally. Over hunting has taken away food sources. There are carcasses or guts left behind from hunters, but lead from the bullet fragments poison them when they eat. The lead bullet is today’s greatest threat to the scavenger.
In the twentieth century is when the numbers dramatically declined. Thus, the US listed the species endangered in 1967, yet by 1982, there were 22 birds remaining in the wild. Furthermore, 1985 the entire wild known population of condors was reduced to just nine birds. This prompted the California condor captive breeding and reintroduction program. The program, created by the Peregrine Fund, started by collecting all of the remaining wild birds for captive breeding with eventual reintroduction into the wild. A condor can lay one egg every other year, biologists began removing the first egg from the nest and raising it with puppets, allowing the parents to lay another egg. Before reintroduction and their first flight, they get radio transmitters on both wings and a big tag with the number on it. Each year, about a dozen juvenile birds are transferred to the Vermilion Cliffs release sight in northern Arizona. The goal of the program is to establish three geographically separate, self-sustaining populations: a primary population in California, and the other two in Arizona and Baja, Mexico, each to have 150 birds and at least 15 breeding pairs. The challenge of the birds dying of toxic lead poisoning, is being addressed as well. While feeding on carrion shot by hunters using lead bullets, it causes digestive system and organ failure when it is ingested by the condor. In 2005, the Arizona Game and Fish began a voluntary non-lead ammunition program for hunters, as well as incentive for bringing in carcass guts from hunting grounds, Utah has since developed a similar program. The capture and release program along with a change in 2005 by the Arizona Game and Fish, has helped save these birds. There are two sides to this issue. The argument for the capture and release program is to save this bird species from extinction. But the opposition states that it could potentially create a bird that is reliant on humans to survive, thus it would not be the same bird.
There are success stories to the program. Reintroduction back into the wild places began in 1996 and in October 2014, there are a reported 425 birds, with 219 in wild populations in California, northern Baja, Utah, and Arizona. In September, 2014, I was fortunate to be able to witness a reintroduction into the wild of three birds. This is when the captive birds take their first flight after captivity, the three were successful in taking to the air within 10 minutes of leaving the cage. One “first” for the program is that in 2013, the greatest number of chicks were hatched in any one year. Also, in the summer of 2014, there was a California condor chick hatched in the wild, in the state of Utah, for the first time since an experimental population was released in Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in 1996. The new chick was born in Zion National Park. These advances contribute to the goal of the total population reaching 450, then they may be down graded by the federal government from “endangered” to “threatened,” a major accomplishment in the field of wildlife management. But they do contend the program will not be a success until the large birds do not need human help to live in the wild.
Humans did diminish the ancient vulture from hunting, the use of lead bullets, and destroying their habitat. The conservation efforts to save this bird from extinction is worth pondering. Why save this species? They are not only one of the largest raptors in North America, but one of the rarest birds in the world. To see this mammoth bird soaring in the skies is not only an amazing sight, but by keeping them in the wild will also protect and preserve some of North America’s diverse nature. The fact that they are so old as a species makes the act of saving them for future generations more compelling.