If you’re standing on the Vermilion Cliffs at sunset, looking south towards the Grand Canyon, there’s a good chance you might see a wonder of the West, the California condor. As this largest bird in North America glides over 3,000-foot-high cliffs, its wingspan of 10 feet wide makes its presence unmistakable.
In other places along the rim of the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, high above the Colorado River, the sheer size of the landscape can dwarf the great birds. Visitors lose perspective. Looking out across the heart of the Colorado Plateau towards Flagstaff, Ariz., even the largest birds on the continent seem like black receding dots over ancient canyons.
John Nielsen, author of a book called Condor, writes, “Those birds would have seen the Anasazi culture thrive in the Vermilion Cliffs for roughly 2,000 years, and then watched whatever it was that caused the Anasazi to vanish without a trace.”
The Vermilion Cliffs may be a great place to see condors, but it is not a place for the faint-hearted. The Bureau of Land Management advises, “Visits to the area require special planning and awareness of potential hazards such as rugged and unmarked roads, poisonous reptiles and insects, extreme heat or cold, deep sand and flash floods.” My kind of place! I agree with the BLM’s advice to bring “a spare tire, and plenty of water, food and gasoline.” Shovels are also a necessity, and so is car-caravanning for support while driving for miles on treacherous sand. On a five-day car-camping visit, I saw no one.
The remoteness of the Vermilion Cliffs on the east side of the Arizona Strip is exactly why federal agencies selected the area as the perfect location to re-introduce endangered condors. The effort began in the mid-1990s, after a captive breeding program in California saved the species from dying out. Now, on the southwest corner of the rim, holding and feeding pens allow young condors to acclimate to the wild, while specialists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service use hand puppets to feed roadkill to juvenile birds. This is supposed to fool the birds into thinking humans are not involved. It seems to work, though condors have been quick to note the connection between tourists and tasty meals.
While eating lunch on the rim not long ago, three hiking couples from Durango, Colo., and St. George, Utah, who love the area and call themselves the “rimhuggers,” watched a young juvenile with number 43 attached to both wings land 50 feet away, and then hop closer. At 15 feet the bird ducked its head like it was bowing, dipped its wings, and, in what passes for “condorese” -- begged for sandwiches. The group refused, though it is not easy to say no to a condor. The same bird had been dive-bombing rafters on the Colorado River, landing on rocks and reportedly seeking the exotic treat of pastrami. He was later taken back for “re-education” and a healthier diet of dead rabbits.
Grand Canyon guide Wayne Ranney believes that California condors evolved with Paleo-Indians thousands of years ago. He thinks that before the extinction of megafauna like woolly mammoths, condors cruised in for the banquet after early man killed these large beasts. These days, the birds’ affinity for human-killed carrion has not been good for their health. When the birds feast on animals killed by hunters, they can also consume bullets contained in the carcass, and these bullets contain highly poisonous lead.
For tourists, the scavengers are a wild treat. They spot them on patrol over the Grand Canyon as they practice aerial acrobatics below Navajo Bridge, close to Marble Canyon. A few years ago, a pair of condors even flew as far north as Grand Mesa near Grand Junction, Colo., startling folks in a visitors’ center.
But to truly see them in their element dipping, diving, swooping, gliding, you need to walk the rim of the Vermilion Cliffs. I saw condor 25 recently. The bird silently drifted over us, white patches under its wings, feathers at the wing tips splayed out like spread fingers, a vision from another epoch. In autumn light, as shadows stretched deep into canyon bottoms and that lovely orange-gold light climbed cliffs, the vastness of northern Arizona seemed to stretch forever. And what seemed the shadow of a low-flying jet plane was nothing more – nor less – than a Pleistocene bird, back from the brink of extinction.
Andrew Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a professor of Southwest Studies and History at Fort Lewis College.