SciSun: California Soarin’   Leave a comment

The African ostrich is a big bird. The extinct Dodo, once found on an island in the Indian Ocean, was a big bird. There’s a Big bird that lives on a city street and has a garbage-can-living friend . But none of these birds has such an interesting story to tell as the California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus), one of the largest birds ever to live and a species that was almost lost forever.

Far back into the Pleistocene Era – more than 12,00 years ago – the California Condor soared over much of North America, its ten-foot wingspan shadowing over the Mammoth, Giant Cave Bear, Sabre-tooth tiger (Smilodon), and other giant animals much larger than most anything we know today. Due mainly to changes in climate and food supply, by the time the first explorers reached the ‘New World’ – five hundred or so years ago – the condor could be found only in the far west and southwest; after decades of hunting, poisoning, and loss of habitat, by 1900 only a small population remained in the mountains of Southern California. (There are similar species of condor in other parts of the world, but they don’t have the same California laid-back attitude).

And the condor has a very important job in the environment – the scavenger finding and eating dead animals (the kind of job that someone has to do). Equipped with super-sensitive, telescopic eyesight that can spot carrion (recently dead animals that can be eaten) from extreme distances; able to soar (gliding on wind currents) for hours and as far as two hundred miles without landing; a slow digestion, only needing to eat every few days (really, you don’t find a dead animal every day); an incredibly resistant immune system; and behavior that helps the birds remain clean despite their dining preferences (that featherless, bald head isn’t a fashion choice, it’s to keep blood and grime from sticking) the condor is the ultimate step on the food chain – eventually virtually all wildlife, even the mightiest predator, will become food for the scavenger.

“We were the original 'Bald is Beautiful'.  Until those show-off eagles took the spotlight.”

“We were the original ‘Bald is Beautiful’. Until those show-off eagles took the spotlight.”

In an extreme example of ‘you are what you eat’, if the carrion eaten by a scavenger had a good diet and was healthy (well, healthy except for being dead), the nutrients pass into the scavenger; and if the carrion animal had a hard life, the scavenger doesn’t benefit as much from that meal. So, if the scavenged animal had eaten, or been exposed to, hazardous chemicals, those chemicals are passed onto the carrion eater, and eventually make the scavenger sick. One chemical in particular – DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) was a popular pesticide in the 1940’s through 1960’s, sprayed on everything from agricultural fields to homes and businesses and even as clouds into the air (just in case all the spraying on everything else missed anything). But within just a few years, it was found birds who ate insects or plants treated with DDT- or if DDT was sprayed on trees with bird nests – eggshells became so thin they cracked under the weight of the mother and fewer birds hatched. Or, if the babies did hatch, many had serious health conditions and they soon died. The effects of DDT weren’t exactly positive for other animals, or humans, or the environment, either. But that’s another story.

The impact of DDT, and other chemicals, was so severe it was a significant factor toward the awareness of environmental concerns and species protection. (Hooray DDT!!??) Of the original animals listed on the 1973 Endangered Species Act, the California Condor may have been the most in-dangered (as if just being ‘endangered’ isn’t enough). At that time, only a very small population was known to exist in a very small area within California’s San Joaquin Mountains. By 1987 only 22 birds had been found, far less than the Minimum Viable Population – a biological term scientists and researchers use to calculate how many individuals of a species are necessary for that species to continue to grow and thrive. Usually numbered in the hundreds or thousands, 22 of any species shouldn’t be enough for the species to survive and in fact, the Condor was considered ‘extinct in the wild’ by the time the Endangered Species Act took affect.

But thanks to organizations like the San Diego Zoo; the Oregon Zoo; and the Los Angeles Zoo, in 1988 all remaining condors were captured and placed in protected holding areas where they would be safe and hopefully lay many eggs that would hatch into baby condors. Over the years this experiment has generally been a success, and today there are over 400 California Condors, more than 200 of them released into their historic ranges within southern California, Arizona, and northern Mexico.

Despite on their way back from the brink of extinction, and their extreme adaptations that allow the condor to be successful at what’s a pretty thankless job, the birds still face challenges: Electric power lines; habitat destruction; poaching and continued hunting; trash that’s mistaken for food and fed to nesting babies; and perhaps worse of all, lead poisoning resulting from eating animals left by hunters using lead ammunition. For thousands of years the majestic, soaring California Condor has cast a huge shadow over the land. Let’s hope this unique bird, and the important work it does, is never over-shadowed by decisions and choices we make today.


Michonne Says: Oh, I’ve seen these Condoors. They’re big and scary and sometimes don’t smell so nice. But they’ve never bothered me or anyone I know. Don’t their heads get cold, without any fur?

Posted October 13, 2013 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SciSun

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