Ever since I can remember, I've wanted to see the largest soaring bird in North America - the great California condor. As a boy, I heard these birds were disappearing fast and would soon be gone.
I eagerly read every newspaper or magazine article about these magnificent birds. The condor was portrayed as the largest and most graceful bird to ever catch the wind under its wings. But I never had the chance to see those huge black wings stretched out against the blue sky.
Years later, I heard of a conservation project to save the California condor from extinction. The plan was to catch the remaining few birds and try to breed them in captivity. The last of them taken from the wild was in April of 1987. This seemed to be a serious gamble but I had faith that the scientists would prevail and their compassion would be rewarded.
Because of those experts' hard work, the condor is once again master of the skies in the mountains of Southwest California. And once again, there is hope that someday I will see a California condor.
The condor is a holdover from the time when giant bison and mastodons roamed the continent. At one time, their range in North America was much more extensive. Historically, they may have lived throughout much of the continent. In the mountains and plains, they thrived on carcasses left by once vast herds of buffalo. Today condors may cover many miles in a day, searching the landscape for carrion (dead animals). Though they are called "birds of prey," condors are scavengers - feeding exclusively on the flesh of dead animals. Catching live prey would be difficult for such a large, slow, bulky bird. Also, their large feet have very short, blunt claws - claws not designed for grasping live prey.
The condor does not build a nest. It lays a single egg on bare soil or gravel, often in a cave or the crevice of a cliff. Condors also like to roost on a cliff or high in the branches of a dead tree. This is in part because it is easier for the heavy birds to take flight from a high spot than from the ground. On open ground, they may have to take a running start for 50-60 feet! Once they are airborne, however, they appear to lose gravity's burden, and they soar higher and higher into the blue.
The wingspan of the California condor reaches 9 to 10 feet across - much larger than the 6 foot spread of their cousins, the turkey vultures. Even the majestic Golden eagle is dwarfed next to the great condor.
Weighing as much as 25 pounds, the condor is one of the heaviest birds that can fly. Like a turkey vulture, the condor has colorful bare head and a face that some say "only a mother could love." What the condor lacks in appearance, however, is made up by its graceful soaring.
It's hard to believe that these magnificent birds, could have been driven to the brink of extinction, but they were. Early cattle ranchers in the west, intent on eliminating large predators like wolves, coyotes - even eagles - poisoned the carcasses of cattle. The deaths of large quantities of condors who would also feed on the carcasses was a consequence of little concern to the ranchers.
The demise of the condor is an illustration of how the artificial lifestyles of humans are often very abrasive to the natural world. Sadly, it is predicted that in the next 50 years, over a million wild species will become extinct. Food for thought.
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