When birds became my passion over 60 years ago, I never expected to see a California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus). My Peterson said, “Now very rare, a small number living in mts. of s. Calif” and I lived in faraway Texas. But nine years ago, before moving to Flagstaff, one soared over my wife Janet and me when we visited the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Wow…what a treat! It had “86” tagged on its wing. A ranger checked out the number and told us “our” condor was born in the San Diego Zoo and released in the Grand Canyon after reaching adulthood. He’d even sired a family. Sadly, condor 86 (officially 486) died of lead poisoning in December 2014. He was about the first condor photographed by “condor photographer” John “Verm” Sherman, and, Verm told me, “got me hooked on condors.” Losing “86” is sad.
But our “lifer” condor was the Andean (Vultur gryphus). Back in 1973, Janet and I climbed Mt Tunari, a 16,500 foot massif outside Cochabamba, Bolivia. As we climbed, we saw several soaring above us and from the summit we saw them gliding over the valley below. We were in Spanish language school and set out on a weekend to climb the mountain. We took a bus up the mountainside to about 15,000 feet and then hiked the rest of the way. No real mountaineering required.
While living in Bolivia we often observed these great vultures. I even came face-to-face with one while trudging up a mountain slop outside of La Paz. At around 15,500 feet, I came across a gigantic chick, all dressed in down and pin feathers. However, mother condor was there too, flying low circles around me. I knew that condors were scavengers and only eat carrion, but I wasn’t sure mother condor remembered that, so I decided to head downhill. Anyway, at that altitude breathing wasn’t easy!
For Andean peasants, the bird is sacred, the mallku or powerful leader. Its spirit lives in mountains. I often hiked to Condoriri, near La Paz. This peak is shaped like a condor on the ground, spreading its wings. For the people, the mountain is not only a snowcapped, black- slate mountain, but the powerful black-and-white condor itself. This bird and the mountain are to be respected.
Sadly, it is not respected by everyone. The Andean Condor once was ubiquitous in South America, ranging from Colombia to Argentina, and the California Condor was common from British Columbia to West Texas. Today, Andean Condors number about 6,700, suffering from hunting, habitat loss, powerline collisions and, worst of all, intentional poisoning by industrial ranchers. Fortunately, the return of the California Condor is a conservation success. Once virtually extinct, it now approaches 500 wild-flying individuals in California, Arizona, Utah, and Baja California. Still, its future is uncertain as it also suffers environmental constraints, especially lead poisoning.
Condors are the largest flying birds. The Andean is somewhat bigger than the California. Both are slow reproducers but are blessed with longevity. They belong to the Cathartidae family and each is the only living representative of its genus.
These birds are majestic, worthy of admiration. For my part, I reverently recite along with Andean peasants: “Oh Condor Mallku, good Mallku, we own you obedience, respect, and fear.”