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California Condors Again Are Soaring Over Some National Parks

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Condors aren't glamorous, but we'd be lesser without them soaring in the skies/NPS

Condors aren't the most glamorous birds in the sky. I mean, after all: they feast on  dead animal carcasses. The California condor did not escape the scrutiny of Charles Darwin, who described them as, 'œ....disgusting birds, with their bald, scarlet heads, formed to revel in putridity.' But, while their dining habitats can be distasteful, they are magnificent.

Condors are the largest flying bird in North America and the second-largest in the entire world.  Their black with white triangle wings stretch up to 10 feet, they can weigh 20 pounds, and can stand 3 ½ feet tall. While they can live to be 70 years old, none today are older than 40.  

However the condors (and other carrion birds, such as the vulture) fill an essential environmental niche: they are nature'™s own janitorial squad.  The California condor feeds mostly on large carrion such as sheep, cattle, and whales, which are more easily seen from the air.  They don't have a great sense of smell, so they must rely on their eyesight to help them find their next meal.  

They have characteristic reddish, naked heads, black plumage, and a neck collar that protects them from the cold.  The condor's featherless head is an adaptive trait and keeps the birds clean when they stick their head fully inside a carcass. Not unlike chameleons, the skin on a condor's head changes different shades of red, yellow, and orange, communicating their emotions. To cool themselves by evaporation, they'll  defecate on their own legs.  

Male and female California condors look very similar, until closer inspection; only immature condors look noticeably different with a blackish, gray head.  Their head turns reddish only once they enter into adulthood, which can take 6-8 years.  Adults mate for life and the female produces an egg every other year. They're good parents and nurture their baby, but will often lay their egg straight on the stone floor of caves.

The California condor, while named after its main state of residence, is a remnant of the glacial age. They used to roam across the entire continent, feeding on the large mammals during the Pleistocene, but migrated to  the West Coast as they disappeared. They've remained relatively unchanged for over 10,000 years. Native Americans revered the condor, often using its feathers in ceremonies, sacrifices, and artwork.  It was known as the Thunderbird, creating "thunder" by flapping its huge wings.

Their amazing survival story was nearly undone by human expansion, with the destruction of habitat, lead shot poisoning,  hunting, and collisions with power lines. Early explorers and scientists collected them using what they called 'œshotgun science,' which also left a poisonous legacy. For despite the condor'™s impressive digestive system, lead ammunition left behind in the animal carcasses nearly wiped them out. Microtrash - small pieces of garbage like broken glass, bottle caps, and screws - also took its toll, often mistaken for food. 

Some thought we had a responsibility to intervene, while others believed that extinction was unavoidable. Biologist Kenneth Brower wrote, 'œPerhaps feeding on ground squirrels, for a bird that once fed on mastodons, is too steep a fall from glory.  If it is time for the condor to follow Teratornis, it should go unburdened by radio transmitters.'

But the condor was rescued from the brink of extinction from a 1982 population of only 22 birds. The first successful captive breeding of California Condors occurred in 1988 and releases into the wild began in California in 1992. The Peregrine Fund began raising California Condors at the World Center for Birds of Prey in Idaho in 1993, then released them near the Grand Canyon in 1996. To date, hundreds of California Condors have been released in Arizona and California in the United States and in Baja California, Mexico.

Their slow comeback is evident in the sheer sandstone cliffs and deep canyons of the American Southwest extending from the Grand Canyon to Zion National Park and occasionally Bryce Canyon National Park.

They still walk a thin line, but their future looks bright thanks to state and federal wildlife agencies and private interests such as the Peregrine Fund. California Condors are now breeding in the wild, with every new hatchling closely monitored in hopes of reaching maturity. They are still heavily managed, and some are even brought back into captivity to help serve as mentors for younger birds.  This heavy handed management doesn't sit well with some, but has appeared to succeed in saving the birds. 

So as you travel the Southwestern deserts, spend a few minutes scanning the cliffs. You may be surprised to see the majestic California condor, soaring the desert winds.

Miri Gubler is an editorial intern at National Parks Traveler. She is a student at the University of Utah.

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