The Big Ugly Duckling: California Condors

A resting adult California Condor at the Grand Canyon! It has all its beautiful scruff and vigilante like dark feathers!

They’re taking our livestock!!! I saw them carry a sheep off!! Protect the children and your pets!! Some would shout from back in the 1980s… what nonsense!! Condors are physically impossible to pick up any prey as they have flat feet! However, this legend and myth propelled itself in many ways, leading to many hunters killing them. Their endangerment not only comes from erroneous human fear, but also as a consequence of lead poisoning having consumed the dead flesh of wolves, bears, coyotes, etc. which people poisoned. Loss of habitats, DDT, and electrocution by power lines too was another case. Together, the compounding devastations thinned wild California Condors until only 27, 27 survivors left in the entire face of the world all held in captivity.

A Condor in the middle of eating, monitored by cameras during reintroduction!

With a massive wingspan of 9,5 feet! Their casted shadow can block your entire body as their fly high above. 43-55 inches long from beak to tail and weighing about 18-20 pounds, it can be guessed why the misunderstood California Condor was feared to be some monster that took your dog or sheep away. But the truth couldn’t be any further, condors are detritivores. They consume the carcasses of other animals and their evolution, adaptations, and life history revolves around piles of rotting flesh. They can live up to 60 years in captivity but their limits in the wild is not yet fully known! Preferring habitats of scrubby chaparral to forested mountains of up to 6,000 feet in elevation! In the Redwood National Forest, the California condors here uniquely take refuge in the tall redwoods and build their nests in hollowed-out redwoods. They can build nests in caves and cliffs too for other California Condors.

The Bald Head of a California Condor! They look like vultures but are not!

Don’t mistake their iconic bald head simply being an ugly feature of the large ugly duckling, it’s evolution’s fine tuned way of helping condors access carcasses when they stick their heads into putrid flesh (Sometimes up their rear). The bald head helps them better clean themselves as they also bathe frequently. Their sharp beaks and their size give them incredible strength for a bird, tearing carcasses even as tough as whales and other marine mammals to allow no only themselves to eat, but for other detritivores too! The shadow like feather ruff around their necks helps with thermoregulation so they can fluff it up for warmth and cooling when smoothed down.

Their excellent eyesight spots their fly swarmed meals from afar as they ride the air currents. Landing on their flat feet, which are incapable of grasping, they can eat their fill! However, even if they overstuff like we do on Thanksgiving, they can also store some pounds of meat into a pouch within their digestive tract for later consumption just like how we have leftovers! Perhaps not an appetizing comparison, but an apt one.

A Juvenile California Condor, their bald head has yet to fully develop!

The 27 survivors of 1987, went through grueling trials of paired mating and genetic tracking, to give the California Condor one more fighting chance against extinction. Their captivity became their last hope, one of their reintroduction sites is located here in Bald Hills, Redwoods National Park. The specifics of course remain untold as scientists and conservationist fervently prevent people from finding out. Because not only are the California Condors the opposite of what was once perceived as a threat, they are also quite sociable, leading to the concern of them imprinting upon humans when we needed them to learn how to survive in the wild. We have cameras watching the older California Condor raise and train younger captive condors for reintroduction here, and it was a sight to behold such large birds making a come back. One of the factors that slowed down their recovery was the fact Condors only laid perhaps one egg every 2 years! It was this fact that had made their recovery so hard and took long time commitments, and it was this same fact that the threats that had almost wiped them out did so so easily.

What people once wrongly considered the cursed birds of the sky, is still thought of to be birds that carry messages from the gods for the native Yurok tribe here among various other central beliefs of them. In fact, the Yurok Tribe is one of the main supports of the reintroduction here! They serve their important roles in part of this biosphere too, helping open carcasses for other animals to eat such as turkey vultures and serving their role in recycling nutrients. They are more than what they appear to be, just like the redwoods. That’s why I also started developing a program for birds. Using their unique features, adaptations, and lessons to inspire artwork creations of characters for children and visitors! The old lesson of never judging the book by its cover is still a lesson that we often forget, needs to be retaught. Behind that apparent dark hazy feather scruff and that bald head, lies a bird of central importance to our biodiversity, to people, and to conservation itself. To me at least, this Big Ugly Duckling is a proud symbol of conservation efforts and tribal pride, serving to remind us that we can’t just protect only the animals we find “cute” or “beautiful”. Every animal deserves the right to come back!

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