A bird from the past, a warning for the future

  • California condor

 

My first California condor sighting was at the Grand Canyon. Imagine those huge birds aloft over that incomparable chasm - living gliders on wings that span 9 feet and 40,000 years. Imagine their oversized shadows passing over talus slopes and mesas, clouding the once blood-red, but now blue-green waters of the Colorado. Eclipsing the sun over cliffrose, canyon wren and rock squirrel.

Imagine is what I did, too. The condors I saw never left the ground. They were adolescents doing what adolescents do best when adults aren't around - loitering.

They were on a ledge below one of the busiest tourist sections of the South Rim. The spot was popular with many of the young condors being reintroduced to the canyon, much to the chagrin of those assigned to protect them. The big attraction? Water dripping from a pipe.

These birds, wearing wing tags 119 and 158, weren't supposed to be there. For their own well-being, they needed to learn to keep their distance from people.

According to some, the condors weren't supposed to be, period. A few decades ago, as their numbers crashed, many people argued that the condor's time had passed in North America. They were Pleistocene remnants, as irrelevant to today's world as the mastodons, camels and ground sloths they once gorged themselves on. Their time was up.

Nobody had let condors 119 and 158 in on this little secret. These drip-obsessed creatures behaved as if they had all the time in the world.

They walked around on long, flat toes, studying the leak from every angle. When their attention waned, they raised their shoulders and opened their wings to the sun, looking for all the world like conductors waiting for an unseen orchestra to come to attention.

The birds didn't have to do much to draw a crowd. Many onlookers lowered binoculars from brimming eyes.

"I never thought I'd see one," some muttered.

California condor numbers were falling long before Europeans stepped foot in North America. Their bones have been found as far east as New York, and more commonly, in caves in the Grand Canyon and along the Pacific Coast.

Some scientists believe prehistoric humans nudged the condor toward the edge by killing off the megafauna they fed on.

Then came modern man, pushing them nearer to the brink by shooting them, poisoning their food with lead and chemicals and stringing power lines - with the inevitable shocking results.

Last year, shortly after I was introduced to the world of condors through Nos. 119 and 158, lead poisoning nearly wiped out the whole Grand Canyon group. At least four birds died, many more were treated, and the source of the pellets never was found.

The deaths renewed cries that the reintroduction program is a costly waste that cannot succeed.

The Grand Canyon condor program has taken some serious blows this year, as well. Coyotes promptly killed two newly released condors. Another apprehensive newcomer couldn't bear to leave the vicinity of the release pen, not even for food. Her wasted body was found beside the pen in February.

Can we bring back the California condor? Will these birds, all raised in captivity by trainers using condor puppets, ever be able to survive without our constant intervention?

I don't know. I don't think anyone knows at this point.

Should we even try to bring them back? That one I can answer.

Yes. Hell, yes.

In our efforts, we've learned a lot about these intelligent, gentle giants who are capable of a life span close to that of humans. Their curiosity is endless. They seem to have a sense of fun, of adventure, even if the world seems intent on their demise.

Condors aren't just larger-than-life representatives of a long-gone ecosystem. They are a lesson in humility, in the difficulties of bringing species back from the brink.

Thanks to genetics and technology, people are talking about efforts to clone woolly mammoths, saber-toothed tigers and all manner of lost creatures. The prospect is the stuff of Stephen King - a Pleistocenic version of Pet Sematary.

Successes in copying sheep and calves may have lured some into believing cloning may one day prevent the extinction of existing wildlife species.

Cloning, at best, would give us a limited and probably unsustainable gene pool of any given species and would not correct the problems that led to extinction in the first place.

Condors may be a living question mark for a long time to come, but don't give up on them. This spring, biologists discovered two California condor eggs in the back country of Santa Barbara County, the first intact eggs found in the wild since scientists began a captive-breeding program 15 years ago to save the giant birds from extinction. Some of us will be watching the successes of condors with the same fascination as the adolescent condors watching their water pipe.

The author writes in Cottonwood, Ariz.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Terri Likens

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!