This is part of an ongoing series: Species of the Week
For writers, the birds inside the head can sometimes be as lively as the ones outside the window. I’ve had a twenty-two pound bird with a ten-foot wing span squawking and flapping in my imagination for awhile now.
I’ve never seen a California condor (Gymnogyps californianus). I became aware of the condor’s story as a child, probably from one of the many Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom shows on endangered species I cried over. And I came of age in a generation that almost lost the condor. I was 22 in 1982 when only 22 were left in the wild. Five years later, when I gave birth to my only son, the last wild condor joined the remaining breeding stock in captivity.
I started thinking more about condors about a year ago, while writing a short story. Reaching for a metaphor that would echo both ancient history and an uncertain future — perhaps even extinction — I discovered a condor soaring over the canyons of my character’s imagination.
Weekly walks in the Sandy River Delta on the Columbia River this winter have brought condors to mind in less imaginary ways. After all, two hundred years ago, they may have perched in the same cottonwood trees that bald eagles now claim during January and February. I ‘ve written several posts about my walks, the birds and the Confluence Bird Blind, designed by Maya Lin to commemorate the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The slats of the blind are milled from sustainable black locust wood. On each slat, Lin inscribed the names and current status of species that Lewis and Clark documented on their journey. California condors are there, of course (for more on Lewis and Clark descriptions of condors and some drawings, visit the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History online).
I often pause by the blind and scan the river for hawks and water birds. Perhaps as the artist intended, I ponder the layers of irony: the expansion into the West that Lewis and Clark began (including the shooting of condors and bald eagles), the near extinction of both eagles and condors, the demographic and cultural losses of native peoples, the rebound of eagles and revival of indigenous cultures, a bird blind commemorating expansionist explorers rendered by the same artist who designed the Washington, DC. memorial to remember veterans of a costly and divisive military intervention overseas. And then amidst this tangled history, I wonder what the chances are for the birds. Will condors follow bald eagles and make a comeback? Will they survive toxins, slow reproductive rates, and inquisitive personalities and perhaps land some day on this very blind to preen their feathers and decorate a wooden slat with more than their name?
I hope so. But according to The State of the Birds Report released last week, one third of the 800 species of birds in North America are at risk. And the California condor remains one of the most endangered birds in the world
I’ve been following stories of the Oregon Zoo and their breeding program and rumors about possible releases somewhere in Oregon. Will it be the Coast? The Columbia Gorge? Hells Canyon? I’m intrigued by the work of David Moen who scales rocky cliffs throughout the state looking for caves that show evidence of past condor nests or possibilities for the future.
My partner and I vote for Hells Canyon. If condors need steep cliffs and canyons, what better place to release them than the deepest canyon in North America? But honestly, we don’t know enough about condors to cast any vote. Our reasons are selfish. Several years ago, we bought property on a much smaller canyon about twenty condor miles from Hells Canyon, and we’d love to see condors soaring over our place some day.
Volumes have been written about condors, but here are some facts that stand out for me:
- Condors reach sexual maturity at five to six years.
- A breeding pair averages about two eggs every three years.
- They, as well as the Andean condor and turkey vulture, are more related to storks than to birds of prey.
- It costs cooperating agencies (e.g., The Oregon Zoo, US Fish and Wildlife, the Peregrine Fund) over $5 million a year to breed, release, and intensively manage the “wild” populations.
- One of the greatest threats to condors is lead bullets.
- Condors rely on predators to kill animals and leave carrion behind, and human hunters are now the major predator in North America.
- If hunters use non-lead bullets, their hunting can actually help condors.
- Nesting success in the wild is poor without checking and treating chicks regularly for dangers such as West Nile Virus, lead poisoning, and ingestion of microtrash (bottle caps, bits of wire, spent cartridges)
The facts go on and can be found through various links here. What I glean from it all is this: yes, condor restoration is hard and costs a lot of money, but it also tells us something about our future. Until we restore nutrient cycles in our own ecosystem — in other words, clean up our garbage –we may, in a more distant time, go the way of the condor.
For more on condor restoration, visit www.cacondorconservation.org
A report from from the American Ornithological Union and California Audubon provides a sobering view of the challenges ahead.
To understand the problem of lead bullets for condors and other species, check out these conference proceedings.
To read stories about working on condor conservation: Condor Tales
Next week: a species I’ll encounter on a trip to Arizona