Saturday, September 3, 2016

A Look at California Condors on International Vulture Awareness Day

California Condors on the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park

It always sneaks up to me, but today is International Vulture Awareness Day. We do need to appreciate the scavengers and cleaners of our world, but my appreciation goes a little deeper, more like admiration. My favorite member of the vulture family is a real survivor, despite our worst abuses, and great changes in their world: the California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus).
California Condor soaring over the Big Sur Coastline

California Condors are one of the few direct links we have to a world that disappeared 11,000 years ago. At that time, California and the American West played host to a diverse and fascinating megafauna that included mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths, giant elk, bison, horses, and camels, , and a frightening array of predators, including dire wolves, American lions, short-faced bears (bigger than grizzlies), and saber-tooth cats. All gone now, lost to an extinction event that is still not understood: it could have been predation by humans, climate change, even an unfortunately-aimed asteroid impact. The condor, one of the largest of birds, was the clean-up crew when the giant predators of the giant grazers were done eating. When the megafauna disappeared, the condors went into a decline, and the largest species of condors went extinct. Their near-extinction was not necessarily the fault of humans; there may have been only 300 or so when the Spaniards first explored California. Still, we in the modern era didn't help matters. We shot them, or poisoned them with lead buckshot to the point that there were only about two dozen left in the 1980's.

Wildlife biologists stepped in at that point, capturing the last remaining wild birds in 1987, and beginning a program of captive breeding. It has been a reasonable success, with 435 birds alive today. 268 of them have been released into the wild, with populations in Grand Canyon (top picture), the Zion Park region, the Coast Ranges of California (second photo), and part of northern Mexico.

Take a moment to thank the scavengers of our world!

(Note: this is an edited/updated version of one of my earliest posts at Geotripper)

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