California Condor

by John Shackford

My best birding moment over the summer was not in Oklahoma but at Grand Canyon National Park; that is where my wife and I got a great look at a California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus).  I am justifying the use of this species for the Bird of the Month because Grand Canyon National Park belongs to all of us and many people around the world—including Oklahomans—visit the park every year; also the story of the condors comeback from near extinction is quite remarkable and truly interesting.

My wife and 3 youngest kids went on a vacation to California.  The primary purpose of the trip was to take our 17-year-old daughter to visit one of the California universities where she is planning to apply.  On the way out to California, we built in a half day to visit the Grand Canyon.  I was the only one of the 5 of us who had ever seen it, and that was many years ago.

As we were pulling into the parking lot at the park, I saw 2 large birds in the distance that looked like they had the white underwing pattern of the California Condor, but I don’t like to call life birds based on far away IDs and especially when I am just getting oriented to an area.  A little later I thought I saw another distant condor, but again it was far away so I passed on a firm ID.

But our time did come later that afternoon—a California Condor flew right over our heads about 50 feet away, the first life bird I have added to my extremely unkempt life list in a long time.  My wife Melissa also saw it well, and we high-fived it, both for seeing the condor and for seeing the first life bird we had ever seen together.  Later there was one other distant view of a probable condor.  Thus, the total number of condors I thought I saw that day could have been as low as only 2 birds, but possibly as many as 5.

In the 1980s the California Condor was fast slipping into extinction. Cornell University’s All About Birds says that the last remaining 27 were brought into captivity in 1987 to be part of what turned out to be a very successful captive breeding program; now over 230 birds have been released into the wild in California, Arizona, and Baja California; some 170 birds remain in captivity.

Introducing captive bred condors to Grand Canyon appears to have been very much a win-win for the condor as well as park visitors.  The park offers people the opportunity to see a rare species at close range that would now almost surely be extinct, except for the captive breeding program since 1987.  As for the birds, the Grand Canyon offers suitable habitat for feeding and nesting in wide-open spaces, as well as a large gun-free zone.  Also, I would not be surprised if there is occasional supplemental feeding of the local population, either to encourage the population in times of food stress or to encourage the birds to remain in the Grand Canyon area, partly so tourists have a chance to see them.  I have, however, no direct knowledge that supplemental feeding does occur—this is just a guess on my part.

Populations of the condor build up slowly—some pairs skip a year between nestings and when they do nest the female lays only 1 egg. In prehistoric times the birds were apparently found in western and southeastern parts of the U.S.  Such determinations of range have been made on the basis of condor bones found in the caves of prehistoric people.  Perhaps condors once were found in Oklahoma and, given enough time, perhaps they will once again grace our state.  One reason to suggest such a “far out” possibility is that a close relative of the condor, the Turkey Vulture, has shown a positive population trend over most of its U.S. range in the last 48 years, according to Breeding Bird Survey data; I suspect range expansion of the Turkey Vulture has occurred as well, but do not have verification of this at hand.

Incidentally, the Grand Canyon was beautiful that sunshiny day.  There was a bit of haze in the air and that, combined with my not perfect eyesight, made me think that the canyon more resembled a huge painting than the amazing natural wonder it is.