Condors Make a Comeback

The rock-climbing biologists dangling in front of the cliff-face condor cave expected the worst, but hoped for the best. They wanted to know why condor and condor had abandoned their nest in the ancient cave in the inaccessible heart of the Grand Canyon. The devoted condor couple was among California condors reared in captivity who were floating on their nine-foot ( . m) wingspan across northern Arizona as part of a $ 5 million effort to avert the extinction of the largest bird in North America. Condors soared across much of North America 0,000 years ago, feeding on the Ice Age carcasses of mammoths and giant ground sloths. But the last condor was sighted in Arizona in , and by biologists were forced to gather up the last birds in California. Since then, a captive breeding program has enabled biologists to establish one flock in Arizona, two flocks in California, and one more in Mexico.

Biologists hoped that condors and would be the first of the flock to actually raise chicks in a cave in the Grand Canyon so inaccessible the rock-climbing biologists took a helicopter to get to the cliff top above the nest. Inside, they discovered shards of condor eggshells among the regurgitated hairballs and pellets of the nesting adults. That was discouraging, but they were also electrified to discover condor bones in the back of the cave dating back to the Ice Age. Clearly the condors had come home. Since then several condor couples have successfully fledged chicks, which means that the expensive reintroduction effort may succeed in returning the lordly scavengers to the skies of the Mojave, Great Basin, and Sonoran Deserts.

Giant vultures that live entirely on carrion, condors once seemed doomed to extinction by the destruction of the great herds of North America, the spread of human settlements, and especially the effect of the pesticide DDT, which thinned their eggshells as it did the shells of bald eagles.

The reintroduction effort has faced odd challenges. The first flock released in California behaved like a youth gang. They flocked to a country club golf course, where they sat around watching people around the barbecue pits, making buzzard comments among themselves. Some took to attacking cars in the parking lot and ripping off the windshield wipers. “It was like Lord of the Flies,” observed one biologist. More important, in the first year about 0 percent of the released birds died, mostly as a result of encounters with power poles and human beings. The next batch of birds was reared with hand puppets so they would not get used to people, and fake power lines were put in the birds’ enclosures, which delivered a mild electric shock if landed upon. Occasionally a human being would stand at a distance from the enclosure. Once the birds were all focused on the distant human figure, keepers would rush suddenly out of hiding, shouting and stamping to instill fear of human beings.

The new conditioning paid off when biologists again released condors into the wild. The biggest setback came when five condors died of lead poisoning after feeding on a bullet-riddled carcass. Three condors have been shot by random hunters. One condor was killed by a golden eagle. Coyotes have claimed several others, mostly foolish young condors who spent the night on the ground. But gradually the condors have acquired the survival skills that they would have learned from their wild parents. Ambitious individuals have ventured north 00 miles or more, looking for carrion in Utah. Many have taken to showing up at the heavily populated south rim of the Grand Canyon. The appearance of condors inevitably draws exclamations from tourists, but condor minders working for the reintroduction effort soon show up to chase them away.

The recent birth of a chick in the wild has infused biologists with new hope after years of effort. Finally a new generation of condors seems ready to launch themselves from the same caves that sheltered their ancestors more than 0,000 years ago.