Ol’ Number (3)54

Navajo BridgeThe Navajo Bridge crosses the Colorado River at the narrow, northeastern start of Grand Canyon National Park, under the escarpment of the Vermillion Cliffs. Those are rafts down below in the not so muy colorado water. Next to the road bridge runs a pedestrian bridge, from where these shots were taken. I didn’t make it all the way across because of the distraction. Notice anything on the bridge? One of our party, Dagmar, did, and said, why can’t we be over there like that guy? Gymnogyps californianusOnly it wasn’t a person. It was an enormous bird, just under four feet tall. Gymnogyps californianusA California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus), to be exact. Tagged and antennaed, ID# 54 is actually condor number 354, a male hatched June 13, 2004, and released March 2, 2006 from the Vermillion Cliffs. Gymnogyps californianusIn 1982, there were just 22 of these condors alive. Last September, there were 180 in captivity and 230 in the wild, the result of a captive breeding program and attempts to end the primary cause of condor death: lead poisoning from bullets in carrion. Condors, like their smaller cousins the vultures, are scavengers. Traditionally, they feasted on the big corpses of now extinct megafauna; although showing good adaptibility in going after smaller carrion sources now, the condors still find big carrion, which unfortunately was all too often also the target of hunters, who contaminate the flesh with their shot. About 3/4s of wild condors have lead in them, making the entire reintroduction program still something of a touch and go operation. Programs exist to get hunters to swap their lead bullets for non-toxic ones, but that hasn’t stopped some of them from using the traditional lead (and being such poor hunters that they either just leave the toxic bodies there, or wound animals who die later); meanwhile, efforts to ban lead bullets are stymied by the usual gun-crazies whose psychosis terrorizes this nation in so many other ways. Gymnogyps californianus354, who so nicely turned around for the paparazzi, shows the pink skin of a fully mature bird. I know some people think this is an ugly thing to look at, and I feel sorry for their pinched little perspectives. I think it’s beautiful, a whole web of life, which of course also includes death, encapsulated; unimaginable millennia of evolution amid the still more ancient, bony rocks. What this is, is glorious: rarer than those dead, compressed bits of carbon and advertising we call diamonds, and gloriously noble, an attempt, perhaps quixotic, to right our own folly.

354 launched himself — they weigh up to 23 lbs, massive for a bird — off the bridge and disappeared to what seemed like a nearby ledge. I saw him, or another, soon after sweep around the corner of the canyon, high above the rafters but below eye-level for those of us on the foot bridge. Then a few moments later, he, or another, did the same. Two condors! On their nine foot wingspans, they fly slowly. It wasn’t the soaring high above I’d imagined — imagined for, say, 30 years now, since I first read about their seeming doom and assumed I’d never see one — but it was enough.

4 Responses to “Ol’ Number (3)54”

  1. 1 judysbirds September 20, 2013 at 7:24 am

    What an awesome post, and even more, experience!! When I was at Bryce Canyon last year, I saw a bird soaring high in the sky who was SOO big that I thought it must be a California Condor, but was never able to positively I.D. the bird. Good for you and thanks for sharing!

  2. 2 Mary Jo Caffrey September 20, 2013 at 7:40 am

    Remarkable photographs!

  3. 3 Elizabeth September 20, 2013 at 1:42 pm

    Definitely a thrill! I haven’t seen a condor in the U.S. yet but look forward to it.

  4. 4 Gillian September 21, 2013 at 6:59 pm

    What an amazing experience! Though I live in Canada, I’ve recently signed a couple of petitions asking for the ban of lead in bullets to help save the Condors and other species affected. It would be unforgivable if these magnificent birds were to go extinct because hunters won’t change their practices.

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