This past summer I took a long road trip from the Northeast to Southern California and made some stops along the way at places that are key for birds. Deep into the journey, I found myself in one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been: the Grand Canyon.
If you’re never been to the Grand Canyon, it’s futile trying to explain the vastness and majesty of the colossal canyon. Although I’d heard people gush over it (kind of like I’m doing now) and have seen pictures and movies about it, nothing could prepare me for the sheer size. Something interesting happened while I was there though, I became unexpectedly enthralled with the story of one of its residents.
The California Condor is among the rarest birds in the world, but a small portion live in the area between the borders of Arizona and Utah. I already knew a good amount about the California Condor before going to the Grand Canyon, but it was there I could really picture the bird thriving. The California Condor is the largest bird in North America and has one of the longest life spans among birds at about 60 years. From tip to tip, its wingspan can stretch nearly 10 feet. Although I didn’t see a California Condor, I could easily picture the massive bird soaring high over the canyon in search of food.
Sadly, like so many other species around the world, the California Condor is endangered. I learned that the number of condors dwindled to a mere 22 back in 1987 due to the usual suspects of poaching, poisoning from DDT, destruction of habitat and more. All the remaining California Condors were captured and bred in places like the Los Angeles Zoo and San Diego Wild Animal Park. It was there I was able to see these birds firsthand as a small boy. Whenever I’d see them at the zoo however, they were always perched on a branch or sitting still. It seemed like they were waiting. Waiting for their time to once again be free.
With the success of the captive breeding programs, there was a slow reintroduction to the northern border of Arizona and parts of California and their wait was coming to fruition.
While numbers have risen to about 400 (with about 77 wild condors around northern Arizona and southern Utah), there are still so many hurdles that prevent the populations from really taking off. Most notably is the recent rash of birds found killed by lead poisoning from bullets. Apparently, wild condors have been eating the carcasses of animals shot by hunters using bullets that not only have high lead content, but disperse into small pieces throughout a carcass. When a hunter doesn’t properly dispose of the kill, condors feed on it and get sick. Many birds can become ill from just one carcass.
Here’s more from CBS News:
The California Department of Fish and Game in 2008 banned the use of lead ammunition in the 15 counties considered condor territory, but many ranch owners ignore the directive, and some have said it’s because they believe the ammo ban subjugates their rights. Lead consumed is the No. 1 cause of death in condors in California and remains the biggest obstacle to their recovery there, as well, biologists say.
A condor died near Pinnacles National Monument in 2009 after it was tracked with GPS to an area where a landowner had shot dozens of ground squirrels with lead ammo and left them for scavengers. It was especially devastating because the condor was part of the first cohort released at the national park in Central California and was just reaching breeding age.
The death of even a few California Condors has a negative impact on the species as a whole. Condors don’t reach sexual maturity until about six years old and have very particular mating habits. Mating pairs usually only produce one egg every other year, which makes population growth slow and tedious.
Fortunately, activists are doing their best to curb the use of lead bullets used by hunters and give incentives to those who properly dispose of carcasses killed with lead bullets. Hunters should switch to non-lead ammunition for all their bullets because lead poisoning is the number one cause of California Condor deaths in Arizona. It’s difficult to predict the future of these birds, but it’s hard not to root for the majestic birds to once again take safely to the skies to peer down on the beautiful cliffs carved out by the Colorado River.