Letter from Angel Canyon: Condors
This is the 10th in a series of essays by Best Friends writer Ted Brewer chronicling his observations of life in and around our sanctuary in southern Utah.
In northern Arizona runs one of the most lonesome stretches of highway in the U.S. After passing over the Kaibab Plateau through stands of ponderosas, it weaves a precipitous course downward through pinyons and junipers, leveling out along a treeless expanse of sand, sagebrush, barrelhead cactus, prickly pear, yucca and scores of other desert plants.
This is Marble Canyon, enclosed by the looming talus slopes and sheer rock walls of the 1,000-foot Vermilion Cliffs and domed by sky almost intimidating in its breadth. Time feels stalled here, as if it never advanced out of the Pleistocene – perfect territory for a species that has, against all odds, been around since then.
Sixty-five California condors now fly this sky, thanks to a reintroduction project operated jointly by the Arizona Game and Fish Department and the Peregrine Fund, a nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving and restoring endangered birds of prey. With the exception of six, all the condors in the program were bred in captivity at the Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho. The six exceptions were hatched in the wild, each in themselves a remarkable success story for a species that was nine birds shy of going extinct in the wild 22 years ago.
One blustery morning in February, I traveled to Marble Canyon to meet with biologist Chris Parish, director of the condor reintroduction project for the Peregrine Fund. He took me to Navajo Bridge, and there we stood a good 470 feet above the Colorado River, at the beginning of where the river carves its own canyon through Marble’s floor. Perched on a cliff ledge beneath us were three condors—male 250, male 273, and female 302. (All condors in the wild wear numbers and global positioning system transmitters on their wings, allowing the field biologists to track and monitor them.)
Though the frigid weather didn’t exactly evoke romance, this was the beginning of condor mating season, and the two males were vying for the attention of the female.
"Look at that!" Chris said as 250 ambled toward 302 with all nine-and-a-half feet of his wings spread. Rocking from side to side, he leaned his head forward, displaying a spectrum of red, blue, orange, pink and gray colors on the back of his neck that could have been derived from the sky in all of its manifestations.
"Thatta boy," Chris said.
We held our breath, anxious to see if 302 would start nibbling at 250’s neck, signaling she was receptive to his courtship. Condors lay precious few eggs, at most one every other year. If these condors have any chance of becoming a self-sufficient population, they must reproduce in the wild, making any opportunity for fertilization an occasion weighted with the survival of the species.
Perhaps because 273 was malingering on the scene, 302 was unfortunately having none of 250’s charm that day. She launched into the air, flew under the bridge, and landed on another ledge within spitting distance of the bridge’s girders. Unable to leave her alone, 250 and 273 followed her there.
But this was no place for them to be. A field biologist monitoring the condors hustled toward them, clapping and hollering – trying to move them away from a spot that was much too close to the bridge for their own good. The birds flew away and found another ledge at a safe distance.
"People think we’re monitoring them so closely to change the birds’ behavior," Chris says, "but what we’re most worried about is people’s behavior." Chris tells me that over the years people have fed the condors. Three of the birds have been shot. One ingested a discarded penny lying somewhere below the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, and later died.
Many people consider the condor reintroduction project a litmus test of the toxicity of the environment the birds are in. Like ravens, golden eagles, coyotes and a host of other scavengers, condors feed off what remains in the landscape, be it the carcass of an elk, the viscera from a hunted deer, or the trash someone carelessly discards. What condors eat could very well be lethal. Indeed, what most condors die from is lead poisoning, which is something they develop after ingesting spent lead ammunition lodged in the viscera, or "gut piles," that deer and elk hunters leave behind in the field.
Chris spends most of his time these days educating hunters and hunting groups in Arizona about the deleterious effects lead ammunition is having on condors, other scavengers, and people who eat game laden with the metal. The same effort now has to be made in Utah, because the condors are regularly crossing the border these days, heading to Cedar Mountain in the southwest corner of the state (and more than likely passing Angel Canyon, home of Best Friends, on their way there). The effort may have to be taken even farther afield, because condors have been spotted as far north as Flaming Gorge in Wyoming. Chris thinks birds from this population could very well make their way as far south as Mexico one day.
It’s too early to say whether or not the population of condors in Arizona will be able to survive on its own – without intense management and the influx of captive-bred birds. Nonetheless, their reintroduction stands out as a harbinger of hope, a rare commodity in this era of mass extinctions and global warming. It may prove to be a litmus test not just of the toxicity of the environment, but of how much we value the landscape and to what lengths we’re willing to go to improve it for the sake of wildlife. The payoff is tremendous: no less than the utter, blissful astonishment of seeing the largest bird in North America – this vestige of another era – circling our skies once again.
In an upcoming issue of Best Friends magazine, Ted Brewer writes about the monumental effort under way to help California condors establish a self-sufficient population in the wilds of Arizona and examines the thorny debate over how to most effectively remove spent lead ammunition – the condors’ leading cause of death – from the birds’ habitat.
Photo by Gary Kalpakoff
Letter from Angel Canyon is published on or about the last Friday of each month. Here are links to past essays: