A Yankee Notebook

October 29, 2017

Saving The Condors

PINNACLES NATIONAL PARK, CA – The California condor is the largest of North America’s land birds. It’s difficult to appreciate just how large without a tape measure or a piece of rope. If you’re six feet tall, for example, and spread your arms wide, you’re still three feet shy of a condor’s wing span. Knowing that, and seeing a condor up close, however, are two entirely different things. My first reaction was a startled “Holy Toledo!”

Condors once soared all over western North America. They’re scavengers, and thrived on the remains of predator kills and natural deaths. The National Park Service information sheet here mentions that Lewis and Clark, during their sojourn on the Pacific Coast in 1805, watched condors feeding on the carcass of a dead whale near the mouth of the Columbia River.

The arrival of settlers and the attendant depletion of natural resources and habitat – an important factor was the war on predators and prey – reduced the condor’s range and available food, until only a remnant population clung to the almost inaccessible crags of the central California coast. In 1967 the species was finally declared endangered by the federal government, and by 1987 only one bird remained alive in the wild. It was captured and integrated into a captive breeding program. A cooperative effort by federal agencies and several private organizations, it released six juvenile condors into the wild here at Pinnacles in 2003. After much breath-holding and crossed fingers – not to mention extensive monitoring – by the restoration people, they eventually spotted the first nest of a pair of wild condors.

From a layman naturalist’s point of view, it’s difficult to see how either evolution, or its odious alternative, intelligent design, could have led to the life cycle of the condor. First of all, if it survives infant mortality – not an insignificant factor – it takes a young condor five to six years to exchange its jet-black bald head and neck for a crimson one and achieve sexual maturity. Once a pair have found each other, they produce only one egg every two years. If the egg hatches, the youngster requires constant feeding and aviation lessons for about a year, when it can begin to forage for itself. The parents then take a well-deserved year off before starting all over. You’d think that by now, given the stresses militating against its survival, the condor would have evolved (or been given by a benevolent Creator) a more efficient life cycle. That hasn’t happened, which is why we’re to document the efforts of people, both lay and professional, dedicated to its restoration.

The crew and I have spent the past three days following some of them. I’ve noticed right away that the combination of Title IX and, perhaps, the TED program has resulted in a heavy preponderance of young women biologists in the National Park Service. The Pinnacles Condor Recovery team of Rachel, Alacia, Rose, and Savannah have cheerfully matched my geriatric hiking pace on a hike through the nearby talus cave and taken us on a hair-raising mountainside drive up to a remote capture and detention facility, where three juveniles await eventual release from their large pen, dining a couple of times a week on the remains of stillborn calves. A fourth juvenile, already free, perched just outside (they’re very social birds), perhaps hoping for a bit of the food inside. Each of them bears a large number affixed to a wing for easy identification at a distance, and each has an implanted chip with a dedicated frequency for radio telemetry tracking.

We watched while the young women, armed with what resembled beefy butterfly nets, herded one of the juveniles into a small room where it could be subdued. Three of them held it, stuffing cold packs under its wings and holding its powerful beak and claws. A fourth took a blood sample and ran it through a radiometer, which showed an elevated level of lead. So they hooked up a drip bag and a dose of chemicals to bring it down. They measured a flight wing and gently released the huge bird back into the pen.

Scavengers – condors, vultures, jackals, and hyenas, for example – have for centuries gotten a bad rap in polite society, unlike, strangely, the eagle, which is also an eager scavenger. In one of my interviews here, I must have expressed some mild revulsion concerning the condor’s habits. This prompted, from Alacia, “I take that as an insult,” and in the next few minutes she turned my bias 180 degrees with a vigorous defense of the bird’s beauty, as well as its utility.

I have to admit she had a point. The condor’s breathtaking size close-up, as well as its majesty when it soars, thousands of feet high, with rarely a movement of its wings, surveying multiple square miles beneath it.

Now that it’s been reintroduced – successfully may be too optimistic a word – it has a fighting chance at survival. But the condor’s major threat is from the same species trying to save it: in this case human beings who continue to use lead ammunition in spite of its documented collateral lethal effect on both birds and animals. Here in New England, it kills loons who accidentally ingest lead sinkers; in California, it attacks scavengers who eat the carrion of animals or birds killed by lead bullets or shot. In the bloodstream, lead attacks the scavengers’ nervous system and eventually causes paralysis.

Still another threat to the condor’s survival is the tenuous thread by which the project hangs vis-à-vis the federal government. Condors aren’t much of a priority compared to, say, a cruise missile; and a single, casual stroke of a pen by some clueless departmental secretary could make all the difference in the world to a magnificent species and the incredibly dedicated biologists and bird-lovers who’d find the world much poorer without them. I confess I’ve got a new enthusiasm and project to celebrate and support.

Photo by Willem lange