Huge, rare and sometimes mischievous

Huge, rare and sometimes mischievous


The biggest, rarest, and possibly oldest bird species in North America is a familiar sight to many Tehachapi residents: the California Condor. This giant among birds, with a wingspan in excess of nine feet, is regularly encountered in Bear Valley Springs and Stallion Springs. A group of about 20 of them recently appeared at Jan Hendricks’ home in Bear Valley to feed on a deer carcass. And to pass the time, one of them proceeded to demolish the lid to the Hendricks’ hot tub, as well..

It has only been through a combination of hard work and good luck that there are any California Condors left. An apex scavenger with a very low reproductive rate, their population dwindled ever since contact with Americans armed with rifles, until by 1987, there were only 22 left in existence. Some argued that their time had passed, and that they should be allowed to fade into extinction.

g10c0fa0000000000004c2b89cf8ae705dc8fd84f92c0b025477945e43bHappily, more rational people argued that since humans were the main cause of the condor’s plight, it was humans who should work to save them. And despite some controversy, it was decided that all the remaining condors should be captured and a last-ditch effort should be made to breed them back from the brink of extinction.

And where were the last remaining wild condors caught? Here in the Tehachapi Mountains, one of their last strongholds, on Tejon Ranch property. It was almost exactly 28 years ago, on Easter Sunday, 1987, when the last free-ranging condor, designated AC-9, was captured.

g10c0fa0000000000002defd9342a273f4ab1f6a5e46946800bfc2a7586Millions of dollars and many years of hard work later, the total population of California Condors (Gymnogyps californianus) now stands at about 425 individuals, almost 20 times more birds than there was less than three decades ago. At nearly any given time, there may be Condors in the Tehachapi Mountains, especially young birds in groups of 10 to 20 individuals, like the ones that visited the Hendricks home in BVS on March 25.

I have seen them in the wild many times, and it is always unforgettable. They are simply so large and distinctive. The Nüwa (Kawaiisu or Paiute) name for Condor is Wo-kid Wu-ku-ma-hazi, meaning “Chief Vulture.” There are other avian scavengers, like ravens, turkey vultures and golden eagles, but Condors are equipped with shear-like beaks that are able to cut through the thickest hides of animals like elk, buffalo, horses, cattle, etc.

California Condors have never been recorded killing anything, they only feed off creatures that are already dead. Their tendency to scavenge dead cattle led cowboys in previous centuries to shoot them in the mistaken belief that they might have killed cows or calves that they were feeding on, when in truth they were just cleaning up the remains of livestock that had died from other causes.

Their scissor beaks and curiosity can lead them to cause mischief around houses, as Jan can attest, and they have been known to tear up window screens, boat covers, hot tub lids, windshield wiper blades and other objects in the Tehachapi area.

g10c0fa000000000000bd6931075f8159f68e583bb84424d89dbb415c35The biggest threat to them has turned out to be lead poisoning from scavenging the carcasses of hunted deer, elk and other animals. It only takes a few tiny lead fragments, like the size of a BB, to sicken or kill a Condor. As a result, lead-based ammunition has been banned for use by hunters in the Condors’ range. You would think it would be phased out everywhere – lead is a well-documented neurological toxin, the military doesn’t use lead ammunition anymore, and it’s hard to believe that any hunter would want to take a chance on feeding their family meat that might be contaminated with lead, but humans are naturally resistant to change, even change that makes sense.

If you’re interested in assisting with the California Condor Recovery Program, there is a crowd sourcing project called Condor Watch (CW) on the website Zooniverse. Condor biologists have collected far more photographic images from motion-capture cameras than they have the time and personnel to sort through, so Condor Watch has people view the images on their own computer and report back on the tag numbers of the Condors in the images, the distance from carcasses, etc. It a fun citizen science project that has been going for about a year and has already generated useful data.

If (and when, hopefully!) you encounter California Condors in the Tehachapi area, be prepared for a remarkable experience. I’ll close with this description of a Condor sighting by C. Hart Merriam, a famous naturalist who was exploring in the Tehachapi Mountains in 1905. On my birthday, Nov. 9, he recorded this encounter in Cummings Valley:

“As we were about to cross this canyon & only a few rods above the road I saw two magnificent California Condors sitting upright on the rocks. The nearest one slowly spread his great wings & sailed away, and the other soon followed. They were not frightened & kept in sight for nearly an hour — for we stopped & watered the horses at the troughs (had to unhook & lead them down as the water is on a steep slope below the road) & then, on the promontory overlooking the San Joaquin Valley a little below, fed the horses & ate our lunch. During all this time the condors sailed & soared about. Once they went out over the plains, then returned & rose higher & soared up over the highest of the hills & circled together. It was a superb sight — one of the lucky events of the season for me.”

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