Condor Success Story

October 19, 2016 Posted by: George Jacobi

 View looking downriver at Navajo Bridge spanning a green Colorado River 466 feet below.

Even now in mid-September, the air above Navaho Bridge shimmers with heat in late morning, and the coral and cinnabar cliffs to east and west show no mercy. We venture out onto the span of the old bridge, now a walkway, squinting despite sunglasses and hats. Four hundred and sixty-six feet below, the unnaturally green Colorado River flows south toward the Grand Canyon, swirls of sediment roiling up from its depths. Tiny rafts filled with miniature people drift by one at a time. This is the most consistent place in their Arizona/Utah territory to see reintroduced California Condors.

Back in the Pleistocene, the Condor was a common sight, cleaning up the remains of megafauna like the Giant Sloth and the Mammoth who fell prey to the Dire Wolf. Even after humans spread across the continent, the southwest was home to millions of elk and deer, and the coast millions of salmon and sea lions, and the giant birds fared well. After the European colonization, things went downhill. By 1900, mostly due to shooting and poisoning, the condor's range was reduced to a small part of southern California.

I wanted a good view of a Condor since arriving here at the end of June. I spent many hours walking the south rim of the Grand Canyon, always with one eye out for the bird with a 9½ foot wingspan. There were plenty of Ravens and Turkey Vultures to see. One day I noticed a big Condor-shaped figure sitting on a far ledge. Finally, I thought.

I watched and watched. People walked the rim a hundred feet above, unknowing. After the black shape stayed still for too long, it dawned on me that if it really was a Condor, it would probably have a 25 foot wingspan. Oops.

Since then, several Condors have been close enough to identify, sailing over the canyon in the distance, but too far away to be satisfying from a personal viewpoint. Immobile, serene, they appear to be suspended from invisible wires. Condors get around, though –the same bird has been seen in the afternoon 100 miles away from where it was in the morning.

April 19, 1987 –The last remaining wild Condor, with great controversy, is trapped and taken to a zoo for captive breeding. The population had been down to 22 wild birds. During the 90s, the program is gradually successful and Condors are released to their former range, not without many setbacks. In 1996, the first six Condors are released at the Vermilion Cliffs, where they can forage the vast plateaus and canyons of this area.

I've goofed this up before. A few years ago, there was an unusually heavy push of Snowy Owls into southern New England during the winter. These birds are the result of a fortunate breeding season and as yearlings, find themselves with no available territories to the north. They show up on beaches and golf courses in Rhode Island and Connecticut, wide areas that resemble tundra, and delight birders, although their prospects for survival are marginal.

Hiking near my local airport, I see a distant white oval on a bush. Exact right size. The top third moves occasionally from side to side, randomly, a bird rotating its head. Wow. Without binoculars, I slowly move closer and closer to the Snowy Owl. It takes time, but at last I get near enough to positively identify the white plastic bag, stuck in the bush except for the top part, which blows back and forth in the wind.

2016 – As many as six pairs of Condors nest in the Grand Canyon, and more across the Vermilion Cliffs. The empty expanses of high desert and the canyons of the Colorado River drainage have proved suitable habitat. Nevertheless, problems persist. The most critical is lead poisoning – Condors take in lead shot when they feed on the carcasses of hunted animals. There are now more than 260 wild Condors, though, across protected parts of their former range, an unprecedented success story and an example for the future of endangered species.

We scrutinize the rectangular concrete cavity below the east side of the new Navaho Bridge, where the steel structure is attached to the side of the vertical canyon wall. In the shade, it stays relatively cool until the sun is directly overhead. People lean on the railing of the walkway near us and point. A black blob on the concrete pad spreads its wings as it steps off. With one flap of those huge wings, it catches the uplift of the late morning thermal and flies across the canyon below us. Magnificent. Dramatic against the aquamarine river and sienna stone, the bird swings near the west wall, where a second Condor joins it in effortless loops. They rise closer to the height of the bridges, so close we can almost make out the numbers on the wing tags, then the slow circles take them south, above the rim of Marble Canyon. Still without exertion, they glide until they are but faint dots on the horizon, and then they are gone.

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This blog is meant to encourage awareness and thoughtfulness about the Grand Canyon, one of our most precious resources. It is not merely a story of what happens or has happened here, not a cookbook for what you should make of it yourself, but more an example of the many-faceted inspiration the Canyon nurtures in an artist, perhaps in you. Indeed, inspiration may be the Canyon's greatest resource. These words are sincere, my own take on this world, deliberately non-academic and directed toward users of social media. In no way does it represent the policies or opinions of the National Park Service, although it is done under the auspices of that entity, but is offered in gratitude, with my respect and admiration for these soldiers of conservation. George H. Jacobi 2016

Last updated: October 19, 2016

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