Contemplating California Condors
Author Sherrida Woodley finds inspiration at the intersection of avians and extinction. The dearly departed Passenger Pigeon plays a pivotal role in her award-winning bio-thriller, Quick Fall of Light. The newest bird on the brink to capture her fertile imagination is the California Condor, on which she graciously shares her research and ruminations:
Sometimes as a writer you recognize there’s been something overlooked in your midst—something quietly abiding. For me, a bird called the California Condor has taken over more of my thoughts lately, and I decided it was time to see one before giving a presentation about it to the Rachel Carson Commemoration at the National Aviary in May. The World Center for Birds of Prey (The Peregrine Fund) in Boise, Idaho, most famous for its Peregrine Falcons, also has a vital population of California condors. They reside there at the top of a small mountain sanctuary as mythical as my first remembrances of ancient thunderbirds, living, mating, and raising young.
My first view of them was at a distance. Two condors dominate the entrance to the Center in an exhibit known as Condor Cliffs, living among boulders and heavy rock formations that deepen into a labyrinth of caves. Often, as you drive in, you see them perched on a sturdy pole that resembles the shards of a broken tree. Their size doesn’t escape you. The largest flying land birds in North America, they appear like folded umbrellas at first, their wing feathers draped blanket-like, enveloping bodies that naturally weigh about 20 pounds at maturity. You think of turkey dressed in black. The day I visited them there was a steady breeze that occasionally stirred their giant feathers in the constant urgency to fly, which they avoided, instead gracefully shoving off and on outcroppings with sure footwork and a flap or two of wings. As ungainly as it sounds, they pull it all together—weight, width, and wise use of space. When I watched them spread their wings to sun themselves I could finally grasp their enormousness. And poise. They are without a doubt the only bird I’ve ever seen that unfolds its wings to sunbathe, which is believed to rid them of bacteria, but the sun’s warmth may also be a form of bent feather repair. When they finally lift off, I’ve heard it said to hear the rush of wind through their wings is something you never forget. Now free flying in California, Arizona, Utah, and Baja, condors are slowly making a comeback thanks to those, like the Center, who’ve committed to captive breeding and releasing these amazing birds.
Condors, like all New World vultures, can disturb the human psyche. We tend to think of them as being at the bottom of the carnivore food chain, hunched over a carcass in an earnest attempt to slowly devour what’s left of it. Of course, there are those things to consider. But there is also this: It’s not unusual for a condor to wait days for a meal, often “notified” first by ravens and golden eagles who are frequently the first to feed. The condor’s eyesight is telescopic, but the problems encountered in just getting near a meal are endless. Their hallmark: They don’t kill. They scavenge, making them reliant on nature’s whims. It also makes them champions at soaring, sometimes covering one hundred miles or more a day, coasting on thermals and keeping close watch on telltale animal behavior.
Tom Cade, founder of the Peregrine Fund and President Emeritus of the Center, also shared much over a period of about four conversations. There’s something intense about his focus. . . dedication, yes, but even more. I guess you’d call it deep-seated reverence for these North American vultures. I sensed his ability to hold a lot of information in his head while sorting through his emotions about what’s happening. Lead poisoning (through spent ammunition in animal carcasses), the random shooting of condors, amusing anecdotes about their curiosity and intelligence, all of this came out over a period of time, and all of it described from one who’s seen much success amidst bouts of failure. There’s no doubt his constant statement is true and will remain true. “The condor is dependent on us until lead is out of the picture.” Yet, as he said, there are now over 200 birds on the wing in the wild. They continue to thrive, mostly due to constant monitoring. And they continue to ingest lead. The responsibility is enormous.
I enjoyed my time with these birds of earth’s past. To endure, when so many species didn’t survive the Pleistocene, through an Ice Age, and now centuries of man’s interference, to me, is a testament to the condor’s ability to adapt despite increasingly difficult odds. We’re beginning to understand why. As Sophie Osborn writes in her book, Condors in Canyon Country, “They will fly free, as they once did, fresh wind whistling through their unadorned wings, vast landscapes unfurling beneath their ever-curious, somehow all-knowing gaze.” I’m convinced they know what they’re up against. And, as Carson, herself, might’ve said, it’s with a sense of wonder that I’m able to witness it.
Images used with the kind permission of The Peregrine Fund