Day 146: It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane…

Reflections on one of the world’s rarest birds.

May 26, 2015, Los Angeles, California — When you’re searching for a California Condor, two field marks are particularly helpful: Look for (1) a bird so big it may be mistaken for a small airplane, and (2) the large number tags on each wing. (Remembering, of course, that airplanes also have registration numbers.) You’ve probably heard about California Condors, North America’s largest land bird, but their story bears repeating. The species came within a pinfeather of extinction in 1987, when the population dropped to just 22 individuals, all of which were taken into captivity. A last-ditch breeding program has since boosted numbers up to several hundred birds, and, with heavy support from a few dedicated humans, released condors are nesting again in several spots in the western U.S.

Their existence remains tenuous, however, perhaps more so than most of us realize. Condors, because they eat carrion, are prone to ingesting lead shot from animal carcasses. Many of them depend on dead cows which are provided year-round at feeding stations. Free-flying California Condors are regularly captured to undergo an intense lead-removing blood treatment, and some still die from lead poisoning. Others get electrocuted by power lines despite having been desperately trained not to perch on telephone poles (their wings are long enough to arc across the lines). At best, they lay only one egg every other year. Without continuous assistance and monitoring, condors would disappear, as they nearly did in the 80s.

Still, the condor program is generally regarded as a success: An iconic species pulled from the last precipice of extinction. Each year brings gradual bits of good news. Last year, the American Birding Association decided that the condor’s population is “established,” meaning that birders can once again count the species on their lists—and so, this morning, Dave, another L.A. birder named Luke Tiller, and I went looking for one at Pairu Dam, just outside of Los Angeles County. 

It was unexpectedly easy: A condor flew over our car before we even turned off the engine. As we parked, Dave glanced through the windshield and said, “Hey, there’s a Turkey Vulture,” then got out and corrected himself: “No, it’s a condor!” The bird floated in a thermal at a distance where any other bird would have been a speck. We could clearly make out its white wing linings, pale head, flat profile, and those distinctive number tags on each wing. I didn’t quite realize its size until a real Turkey Vulture flew past for comparison—it looked about as big as one of the condor’s flight feathers!

We watched until the condor flapped awkwardly onto a scrubby ridge, out of sight of the world’s consciousness. Few people realize the work it takes to keep these animals in existence. More than $35 million has been spent over the past two decades on the California Condor recovery project, and every living condor represents an annual investment of about $5,000, or a lifetime price tag of $300,000 if it lives to age 60 (California Condors are one of the world’s longest-lived birds). Which, I guess, begs the ultimate question: Are they worth it? As I watched the bird soar above that ridge today, clearly unconcerned with such earthly matters, it was hard to imagine just letting it vanish into thin air. 

New birds today: 19

Year list: 2672

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