Posted by BirdmanDan on:
And Why Humans are Good People!
On a recent morning I jogged along Shoreline Park in the predawn dark, surfboard in hand, heading down to the beach to take the plunge. My bro, the famous WaveSki and Hang Glider Hall of Fame Mike, was already down there shredding up the clean peelers rolling around the rocky point at Ledbetter. Suddenly I gazed up at the silhouette of the mountains barely appearing far in the distance, and then I thought of the majestic, graceful bird that had flown there for thousands of years—the condor.
I live in Hawaii now, though as a youth in Santa Barbara in the 1970s I often hiked those hills, and many times as I explored the creeks and rocky ridges I saw red-tailed hawks, white-tailed kites, turkey vultures and other birds that always inspired awe with their graceful soaring flights so high above, yet never did I see a condor.
The condor population had by then seen a precipitous decline and was disappearing fast—by the early 1980s less than three dozen California condors remained. They soared only very deep in the backcountry as if silently ushering out their species from its existence on this earth.
By 1987 just 22 were left, and that same year the last few condors in the wild were taken into captivity in a last ditch effort to prevent extinction. For the first time in thousands of years, not one condor flew in the wild—zero!
No one knew if the effort to save the condor would be successful, and there were protests against the scientists involved, yet a concerted effort was being made to save the species….and guess what—it worked!
Today there are 350 California Condors, and 188 of them are wil d and free! The rest are still being raised in captivity, and someday they too will take to the vast open skies with more to follow.
There are now wild condor flocks in southern and central California, Baja, California, and Arizona. The condors are successfully breeding on their own, so if progress continues at the present rate the species will eventually be able to survive without human help.
I became more aware of the plight of the condors last week when I attended a talk at the Santa Barbara Public Library’s Faulkner Gallery where the group called Friends of California Condors Wild and Free gave a wonderful presentation. Scientists Jan Hamber, Joseph Brandt, and Estelle Sandhaus described past efforts to save the condor as well as the present state of the species.
Here are the coolest facts I learned from the talk or gleaned from the available literature.
· With a wingspan of nearly 10 feet, California condors are North America’s largest flying bird and they can soar as high as 15,000 feet.
· The condor was sacred to Native Americans—condor cave paintings have been discovered and condor bones have been found in Native American burial caves along with condor feather headdresses.
· The Chumash believed that the condor was once a white bird until it flew too close to a fire and turned black. The condor sometimes ate the moon, according to the Yokut tribe of inland central California, and this caused the lunar cycle as well as eclipses.
· Wild condors taken into captivity laid their first eggs in 1988. More than 17 years have now passed since the first captive-bred condor was released into the wild.
· When soaring condors see another condor disappear from the sky, they know food may have been found so they go to the location. They will feed on a carcass for a long time and then they are so full they have to rest for several hours before taking to the sky.
· Condors in captivity are trained to avoid landing on power poles. Scientists use a mock power pole that is set to emit a small electrical charge whenever a condor attempts to land on it. Young birds quickly learn to avoid perching on the pole and instead find a natural perch in the flight pen. Later this may save their life.
· Condors can live more than 50 years, and they begin breeding around 7 years old. They lay one egg every two years.
· A breakthrough in efforts to save California condors from extinction came when researchers saw a condor egg get pushed out of a nest as two eager parents tried to care for it. When the female laid a replacement egg it became clear to the scientists that condors will lay a replacement egg if their first egg is lost. This was a hugely important discovery because it meant that researchers could take all first eggs in an effort to increase the population and save the species, and they did!
· A main cause of condor deaths in the past and still today is the ingestion of lead in carcasses of animals that have been shot by hunters using lead bullets. Since 1999 at least 12 condors have died from lead poisoning and many more birds have been exposed.
A two-year-old ban on lead ammunition hunting in California is having a significant positive effect on reducing lead poisoning in condors. There has been a 60% reduction in lead available to condors (in dead carcasses from hunting) since 2005.
· A main cause of condor chick deaths is microtrash—quarter-sized pieces of plastic, glass, metal, and ceramic which are unwittingly fed to the chicks by the parents. From 2001-2006, 16 wild-hatched Southern California condors died either directly or indirectly from microtrash.
· One of the highlights of the talk was an amazing video sequence of a condor male mating dance. With wings impressively arched up like a vampire raising his cape, the male lifted his feet high as he walked slowly around in circles—with great interest the female condor followed. Then she presented her feathery back and the male hopped on and then kept prancing...now atop the female! Well I don't need to go into any more detail here, but let's just say there was a still hush among the hundreds of enraptured Santa Barbarans as they all looked on like curious voyeurs.
The future is bright for condors! Thanks to the scientists and the support they get from concerned citizens, the ongoing efforts include telemetry tracking, captive incubation, surgical removal of microtrash from dying chicks, medical treatment of lead-poisoned adults, and public outreach talks like the one I attended.
As I jogged through the morning darkness and heard the sounds of the breaking waves that were about to provide me with a “dawn patrol” delight, I was still thinking about these successful condor recovery efforts and how, even in this world of rampant bad news and ecological horror stories, this was an example of how humans also do good things like saving the condor!
Perhaps someday when I am walking again amidst the beautiful valleys and hills of Santa Barbara’s mountains I will see a huge shadow moving across the ground, and then I will look up to see the bird that ate the moon.
Photos provided by http://free-stock-photos.com/