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

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