Arizona is host to many extraordinary avian species, but none reaches the proportions of one that was once on the brink of extinction. By the 1980s the California condor was completely absent from the wild landscape, and while they have made a comeback, they are still relegated to the most remote parts of our state.
The condors once patrolled much of the West in search of carrion to fill their bellies. During the Pleistocene era they covered most of the continent. This was at the peak for megafauna on the continent, so food was plentiful. Like other scavengers they don’t generally hunt for live prey and must rely on the natural process of death for their next meal. Because this supply is unpredictable, condors can go for up to two weeks without eating. Unlike their cousins the turkey vultures, condors do not have a well developed sense of smell, instead relying on exceptional eyesight to locate food. This is especially impressive because their foods of choice are not generally on the move. To find a single carcass hidden in a vast landscape takes an incredible amount of patience and luck.
A condor can soar for hours, taken aloft on an incredible 9-10-foot wingspan, and can reach heights of 15,000 feet! Like other soaring birds they use prevailing winds and thermal columns to navigate the topography. Instead of constantly flapping, they can glide for long periods of time, reducing calorie consumption while in search of replenishment. They cruise at about 30mph, which means they can quickly cover a lot of ground. Once food is located they take full advantage of their size by pushing other scavengers off the kill. Their sharply hooked beak is used to tear at the carcass, swallowing it down in chunks. They gorge themselves on the sour flesh, consuming and storing up to three pounds in their crop. For context, this is equivalent to a 200-pound human eating around 30 pounds in a single sitting.
Condors are very well suited to the western deserts they generally inhabit. First, it’s a tough environment for any creature to endure, which provides a reliable stream of food. Like vultures they use their giant vascular wings as radiators, spreading them out to either cool themselves off with whatever breeze is present or by soaking up the sun’s rays during a cold desert morning. In a process called urohydrosis, they are known to urinate on their legs, which has the same effect as when a human sweats. This is also how a swamp cooler works, using the principle of convection to transfer body heat to the surrounding atmosphere. Similar to other desert dwelling animals, Condors are also known to excrete excess salt from their nostrils, which regulates hydration.
As I touched on before, the California condor was on the precipice of extinction in the latter half of the 20th century. Due to factors that included poaching, habitat loss, lead poisoning and the ravages of the pesticide DDT, the species was down to just 27 individuals when they were collected by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1987.
A key part of their revitalization has been legislation to protect the species coupled with public education. Lead-free ammunition has been made available to hunters and even mandated around the national parks where condors are most likely to be found. Benefiting countless avian and reptilian critters, DDT has been banned in the US. While habitat loss continues to be a concern, large swaths of federally protected land are protected across much of the Southwest.
A large hurdle to condor rehabilitation has been their breeding practices. Condors lay only one egg at a time and must incubate it for eight weeks, which is done by both mates. If the egg proves viable, the hatchling will be dependent on its parents for about a year before it sets out on its own. Because of the physical commitment it takes to rear young, mature adults don’t generally breed every year. After all this it takes six to eight years before a young condor can reproduce. Compounding these issues, as for all large carnivorous birds, the attrition rate is very high.
All challenges aside, reintroduction into their natural habitat began in 1992, and there are over 550 individual birds in the wild today. They have been freed in Utah, Arizona, California and Baja California. While they remain critically endangered, the forecast is positive, and with continued effort and close monitoring of progress the future looks bright for this magnificent animal.
To see them in the wild, Navajo Bridge above Lee’s Ferry is a reliable spot. Look for them roosting on the steel girders, surveying their domain. Until next time, happy birding!
The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check it out online at PrescottAudubon.org.