Dear Readers, although my recent trip to Monterey was mainly about the hunt for cetaceans, we would have been remiss not to take time out to look for the largest land bird in North America, the California Condor. Its wingspan is just a shade under ten feet, it weighs in at 26lbs, and there are just 463 individuals left. This is, however, something of an improvement on its condition in 1987 when there were just 27 birds alive, due to a combination of poaching, lead poisoning and habitat destruction. In an extraordinary conservation effort, these last remaining wild birds were captured and a breeding programme was started at San Diego Wild Animal Park and Los Angeles Zoo. The first individuals from this attempt to reestablish the species were released in 1991, and you can now see this extraordinary bird soaring above the coastal areas of California, the Baja California peninsula and some of the desert areas of Arizona and Utah.
California condors are, in effect (whisper it!) giant vultures. Their larger Andean cousins occasionally kill things, but the California condor is a cleaner-upper, an invaluable part of the ecosystem but not a bird of prey. Close up it looks almost primeval, with its midnight-black plumage and bald face, but it is unquestionably magnificent.
Their role as scavenger hasn’t stopped them the California condor from featuring as both a creator and a destroyer in the legends of Native American peoples: the Yokut people believed that the bird sometimes ate the moon, causing lunar eclipses, whereas the Wiyot tribe of California believed that the condor recreated the human race after it was wiped out in a flood. Many peoples use condor feathers in their headdresses and ceremonial costumes, and the bones of the birds have been discovered in tombs. In many cultures, birds that fly so close to the sun are believed to have an affinity with the gods, and with returning the souls of the dead back to their ‘home’ in the sky.
Back to our trip to Monterey. We had spotted several birds in the distance, but were completely unprepared when we turned a corner to see a condor, in its characteristic legs-down posture, flying not twenty feet above a lay-by. We screeched to a halt in a tangle of cameras and binoculars, just in time to see the bird swooping low into a stand of trees. The guy repairing the overhead cables nearby shook his head. I suspect he sees a lot of tourists nearly doing themselves a damage on their first close encounter with this extraordinary bird.
All the released birds wear a number tag, which enables them to be identified. The bird pictured at the start of this piece has the id number ‘ red twenty-six’, and has the name ‘Beak Boy’. He was hatched in Los Angeles Zoo in 1997, and was fostered by a pair of Andean Condors. These birds accidentally damaged his beak while feeding him, and although the beak has now healed it has a characteristic ‘lump’ on it.
In 2006 he paired with ‘Solo’ (#208) who was also reared in Los Angeles Zoo. This bird preferred the isolated areas of Monterey County, which are also hunting country. This exposed the bird to the risk of lead poisoning from shot left in the carcasses that the birds feed upon. In 2005 she was spotted in severe distress, and was taken into Los Angeles Zoo for treatment. Fortunately she survived, and was released. In 2008 an act was passed in California which bans the use of lead shot in condor territory, but this doesn’t protect the birds when they fly into other areas. Even the US military doesn’t use lead ammunition, and lead shot for anglers has been banned in the UK for many years. Come on American hunters, get with the programme! It isn’t just condors that are affected but all kinds of birds, from swans and loons to bald eagles.
In 2007, Beak Boy and Solo laid the first fertile condor egg in the wild in Monterey for over a century. Scientists were worried about this first egg, and so it was hatched in captivity. When the bird fledged she was released and joined her parents, no doubt learning all about what it means to be a condor. Beak Boy and Solo have hatched another five eggs since.
All this gives you an idea of the amount of micro-management involved in bringing a species back from the brink. Condors live for a long time (they can reach sixty years old) and breed slowly, not attaining sexual maturity until they are six, and only laying one egg every other year. However, if an egg or youngster goes missing, the birds will lay another egg: this was used by the conservationists as a way of doubling the ‘production’, with the original egg being raised in captivity by humans or condor foster parents, and the parents raising the second egg.
The birds are taught to avoid humans and overhead cables during the rearing process, which has increased their chance of survival in the wild. One of the measures involves feeding the nestlings via a condor ‘glove-puppet’ to prevent them associating humans with food. The less these birds come into contact with humans, who have caused them so much harm, the better.
Let’s have a look at the story of another bird.
This is blue 52 or ‘Ferdinand’. He was hatched in 2012 but is already a large and impressive bird, though apparently with a sweet nature, hence his being named after the gentle bull ‘Ferdinand’ in the cartoon. Apparently when he was released, instead of flying off, he walked up the hill to where the other condors were feeding and joined in without any bickering or argument. He already weighs in at 23lbs and this is not surprising – his father, condor #1 or ‘Topa Topa’ to his friends, was the first condor to be taken into captivity in 1967 and is the largest captive condor ever recorded, at almost 26ibs.
And one last story…
This is green 11, or ‘Big Gulp’. He is a very young bird, hatched in 2015, and was named for his entertaining way of eating, which involved bolting down great chunks of semi-frozen meat. Since his release he has paired up with a much older, more established male #566, or ‘Mike’s Bird’, named for a conservationist who was killed the day after the bird was released. Mike’s Bird is the dominant bird in the area, but has been alone since the death of his mate a few years ago. Condors pair for life, and so maybe in his loneliness he is enjoying palling around with ‘Big Gulp’. The two birds apparently sit together and preen one another. It seems to me that California condors are generally most accommodating and tolerant birds, gentle giants.
The California condor preservation effort is probably the most expensive in US history, costing over $35m since the Second World War, and about $2m per year. I am not sure what price you can put on the sight of these birds soaring above the hills around Big Sur, but for me they are capable of inducing true awe, a sense of the sublime. They are ugly-beautiful, maybe the closest thing that we have to the great pterodactyls of old, in size if not in actual genetic proximity. Preservation of their habitat will protect a whole raft of other, less spectacular but nonetheless vital creatures and plants. The return of the California condor is a story about what humans can achieve when they put their minds to it. When we live in an age of such destruction, it’s important to celebrate our successes as well as bewail our failures.
Photo One by CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3189483Hoto
You can see the biographies of all the Californian birds at the Condorspotter website