Return of the Condor

california-condor-flying-7 Gliding high above the Salinas Valley, they range as far as 100 miles in one day, venturing as far north as Livermore and as far south as Big Sur, where they join their sister flock. In the afternoon, they return to their home spires at Pinnacles National Park. If you sit quietly on the high trails, you can watch them loom in from the distant ocean, and the chill you feel comes not from the wind on the High Peaks trail, but from what their reappearance symbolizes—the tenuous return of a charismatic species from the clutches of oblivion. Few people are aware of their presence as they make their daily trip to Big Sur on the ocean. Most are unaware that if they looked up at the right time they might take in the sight of a dark-winged being that almost slipped away forever, joining the hosts of species already sent to extinction by human encroachment and greed. They would see a shape that passed its shadow over the wooly mammoths, dire wolves, sloths, and saber-toothed tigers of the Pleistocene epoch. They would be witnessing the unlikely presence of the last remaining giant from that time.

Condors soar not only in the rocky crags they call home, but in the far corners of our most primitive imagination. Not exactly the darlings of the Audubon crowd, they are nonetheless charismatic, and every bit as well-loved as the oriole for his orange cape and the hummingbird for her dazzling flight. This is in part because of their stunning size and ancient demeanor. Today, their rarity and their vulnerability account for the balance of their appeal.

We had spent the late morning and early afternoon scrambling up the Pinnacles’ west flank with the hope of sighting condors. We arrived at the height of wildflower display. We took in the blues and purples of lupine, hounds tongue, larkspur, baby blue eyes, and the yellows and oranges of buttercup, monkey flower, wallflower, and poppy. Well over 30 species of early spring wildflower teemed around us. Several sightings of turkey vultures drew momentary hopes of a condor. By mid-afternoon we had decided it would be a day memorable for wildflower profusion, but that we would be condor-less.

Of course, not two minutes after that concession, two condors suddenly appeared, soaring high above and distant, but unmistakable in their size and their under-wing markings. We waited, hoping for a return salvo, but had to be content with a single brief sighting. Then, as we rounded a towering group of rock spires, we saw two more perched on the tip of a spire, then four, and then they were in the air, banking past rock faces and catapulting off and away over the valley and back again. Finally, there were six, then seven condors, joined by several of their smaller cousins, the turkey vultures. It was our time to be transfixed, to rest and watch as they took pass after pass, demonstrating the effortlessness of practiced flight.

The condor’s return is not ensured, but tenuous. As of 2016, their numbers have increased to over 400 from a brush with extinction, but they still face challenges to their survival. Not the least of these challenges is the continued use of lead shot in ammunition. Lead moves through the food chain and into the condor via a number of pathways. The following is adapted from the National Park Service website:

Numerous scientific studies have reached a consensus: lead poisoning is the biggest threat facing the successful recovery of the California condor. Semi-annual test results show that the majority of free-flying condors at Pinnacles National Park have blood lead levels exceeding the threshold used by the Center for Disease Control as an initial warning sign that a human child is at risk. By the time condors at Pinnacles reach breeding age of seven years, almost all of them have received emergency, life-saving chelation treatment at least once. Numerous condors in the flock now require multiple chelation cycles. Because condors feed on dead animals and are group feeders, even small amounts of lead can sicken or kill many condors. Since their meals come from dead animals, condors are more vulnerable to lead bullet hazards than most other wildlife. However, the condor is not the only species vulnerable to lead poisoning through ingestion of spent lead bullets and shell shot. Other wildlife species at risk include bald eagles, golden eagles, hawks, ravens, turkey vultures, and grizzly bears. More than 500 scientific studies published since 1898 have documented that worldwide, 134 species of wildlife are negatively affected by lead ammunition.
There are alternatives to lead shot, including steel, copper, and bismuth that are comparable in cost and ballistic properties. In October of 2013, a bill (AB711) banning lead ammunition for hunting statewide by 2019 passed the State Legislature, and was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown. The governor did the right thing. California is the first state to ban lead ammunition. Other states should follow suit to protect both wildlife and human health.