Guest Contributor: Condors Fly Again

Condors Fly Again

by Melinda Bell, Flagstaff STEM City

One might suppose that the largest flying land bird in North America, that once inhabited almost the entire continent and survived the Pleistocene extinction, would have perfected its mating ritual as part of its arsenal of survival skills.

You would be right!

And the 42 engaged participants in the Diablo Trust’s Condor Conservation Day on the Land on March 25th were privileged to witness that amazing event.

Led by the Trust’s Program Manager Jeremy Krones and The Peregrine Fund’s Condor Program Director Chris Parish, we observed these magnificent birds from the Navajo Bridge at Lees Ferry. Chris shared details about condor biology, the rescue and reintroduction efforts, and the continuing danger from lead bullets. As he spoke, the two condors we were watching slowly warmed in the morning sun, spread their long-feathered wings to gather the rising air, and lifted off the bridge struts, flying to the sandstone cliffs above the Colorado River.

We pondered the scant probability and the remarkable story of how California condors went from a population of only 22 individuals in the wild in 1982, to a captive breeding program begun with a few survivors in captivity and none in the wild by 1987, to the hard-earned successes that followed. It wasn’t until 2003 that the first young was born again in the wild, in a cave above the Colorado River used by ancestral condors 28,000 years ago. Now, 29 young have hatched in the natural world, and over 200 condors range over parts of Arizona, Utah, California, and Baja, Mexico, where they have been reintroduced or begun dispersing on their own.

But the need for condor protection is not over. California Condors are still critically endangered, and 53% of diagnosed deaths come from lead poisoning. Lead bullets fragment into sometimes hundreds of microscopic pieces, lodging in the animal remains that condors may consume. Hunters on the Kaibab Plateau are heeding the message and 87% of these hunters now use non-lead ammunition or remove the remains of lead-shot carcasses from the field.

A California condor sunning on a rock, as seen through a spotting scope on Navajo Bridge.
Photo by Denise Hudson.

The Condor Conservation Day on the Land participants were fortunate to witness the remarkable and rare site of a male California Condor slowly circling a female, with an almost ten-foot wingspan stretched to display the white underside. Our breaths were held as he mounted her, all silently hopeful that new life was being created. May this magnificent mating dance, evolved over millennia yet not seen in the wild during those dedicated years of captive-breeding, continue to create more young condors and inspire future generations of conservation-minded folks to take a second look and have pride in saving a species from extinction.

The Diablo Trust slogan: “Learning from the land and sharing our knowledge, so there will always be a West,” was clearly met on the Day on the Land. Special thanks to Jeremy Krones and Chris Parish, and deep gratitude to all those working to ensure there is a safe and wild place for condors in the West.