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Know the West

Encountering a California condor takes one writer back in time


"There they are!" shouts one of my hiking companions on this perfect January day, unseasonably warm even for California. I squint toward the horizon, past the crooked ginger-tinted rock spires and slouching gray pines, but see only sky, awash in the glare of the midday sun. Finally, I spot a dozen or so tiny black specks, circling like lazy flies -- but on wings nearly 10 feet long from tip to tip.

It's a thrilling sight, all the more because, not 30 years ago, we nearly lost this magnificent flier for good. The comeback of the California condor, played out against the relentless extinctions of birds, fish and mammals, stands as one of the American West's best-known conservation successes.

The largest living bird in North America, the California condor first appeared in the fossil record some 40,000 years ago, when mastodons still roamed the continent. But despite its deep evolutionary roots and a heroic conservation effort, condors remain among the most imperiled vertebrates on Earth.

When our group gathered in the early morning chill of this surreal landscape, just two and a half hours south of San Francisco, I thought our chances of seeing one were slim; there are only 57 condors in the central California flock. But my doubts begin to fade as a park ranger tells us about recent sightings along the 1,200 foot climb that will take us to Scout Peak -- the best spot to see where, just last year, Condor #317 laid the first egg here in over 100 years. Sadly, her egg was infertile. But the plucky condor and her life partner tried again and are now raising their first-born chick.

Pinnacles is one of five release sites for captive-bred condors. To save the critically endangered birds from near-certain extinction, a diverse team of zoos, nonprofits and government agencies launched a captive breeding program in 1982 -- when just 22 condors remained.

Today, close to 200 fly free. Over 190 remain in captivity, breeding insurance against extinction.

We've been hiking barely an hour when someone spots a pair of condors -- or are they turkey vultures? We study their flight. The wings are flat, the glide smooth, not wobbly. Condors, definitely.

As a small reward for the two-mile ascent to Scout Peak, we peer through a spotting scope at the sheltered ledge, high atop a sheer cliff, where Condor #317 made history. The nest is empty at the moment, though birds have begun their come-hither displays, wings held slightly aloft, heads bowed with one foot forward in a kind of avian curtsy.

But our real reward comes later, when we see a juvenile roosting hundreds of feet above us, perched on a giant boulder.

From the ground, condors radiate grace, soaring sometimes for hours, up to 150 miles in a day -- far enough to follow migrating mastodon herds -- with their eyes peeled for the recently deceased. Up close, well, that's another matter. Through the scope, I see the young bird's head and neck: pinkish-gray and nearly naked -- not what you'd call pretty but ideal for probing the inner recesses of a carcass.

Wild condors face two major threats: lead poisoning from eating the pellets in abandoned game, and poaching. California banned the use of lead ammunition in 2007, but with no laws against carrying lead ammo, enforcement is tough. And in 2009, biologists found two condors shot by poachers within just three weeks.

Back home, I could hardly wait to tell my 7-year-old nephew, Zach -- who was already a budding paleontologist at the age of 5 -- about the massive vultures. He considered the news, then informed me: "Well, Quetzalcoatlus was almost as long as our house. It had wings 40 feet long!"

He also wanted me to know that Quetzalcoatlus wasn't a dinosaur. "It was a flying reptile. It flew over the heads of the dinosaurs!"

This wasn't the reaction I expected. Why does a flying behemoth that became extinct millions of years ago captivate a kid so much more than one that is still flying above us?

The age of dinosaurs, I realized, offers the magic of a fantastic world ruled by monsters the size of houses. It's the same thing that draws kids to Star Wars and Spider-Man, where larger-than-life heroes and villains engage in epic struggles. Like superheroes, dinosaurs inhabit a world of myth and imagination. But even better, dinosaurs were real.

The condor, like other species whose ancestors mingled with our own, tells a more complicated story -- one in which we ourselves play a crucial role. There's still time for us to choose between the role of hero and villain. When I was Zach's age, and learned that humans and mastodons lived at the same time, I couldn't believe it. Why didn't we save them? I asked that question 20 years before biologists first proposed that we humans drove them to extinction through overhunting.

I wonder: Did the hunter who slew the last mastodon know it was the last one? Did he care?

For now, the California condor is hanging on, a living link to an ancient world. I hope it will be around long enough for Zach to wonder, as I did, at the sight of this magnificent creature -- not to ponder why we let it go the way of the dinosaur.

Liza Gross, a freelance writer and senior editor at PLoS Biology, lives in Kensington, California.