Visiting Pinnacles National Park the other day, we were lucky to spot California condors several times. Their wingspan can reach up to 3 m. Their graceful flight is a sight to behold as they ride the warm updrafts of between the pinnacles of rock in the park, with their primary feathers bending up like a conductor’s fingers. Condors are the only remaining members of the genus Gymnogyps, which once contained five species. Four are only known from fossil specimens and went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene (~12,000 years ago), but Gymnogyps once ranged across the Americas. As such, the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) is a relic species; a survivor of a long but mostly extinct lineage.
By 1987, poaching, lead poisoning and habitat destruction had reduced the population to 27 individuals, of which 22 were captured and put into an emergency captive breeding program. In the thirty years since this project began, the population has increased to around 450 individuals. The program was expensive, painstaking and a massive undertaking. To this day, all captive-bred individuals are individually numbered and continually monitored. They even have a very adorable directory on the Pinnacles site where you can look each bird up by its number. We saw #606 and #463, and a couple others from farther away that we couldn’t read.
California condors can be distinguished by the much more common turkey vultures by their underwing coloration, with large white patches at the front of the wings. I think that turkey vultures are fun to watch as they fly in circles over the highways searching for roadkill, but when you see a condor fly low over your head, it is awe-inspiring. Even the smaller juveniles have much larger, more pronounced heads than turkey vultures, and seem to fly even more effortlessly with a more gently curving V shape in their wings. We had stopped on the trail to discuss field markings for condors with another hiker when #463 soared over our heads, and we couldn’t help but jump for joy and hug each other at the privilege to see one of the famous condors ourselves.
As an advocate for invertebrate conservation, I have been known to unfairly poke fun at the human tendency to focus on large, charismatic megafauna for conservation as opposed to smaller and less exciting species that may make up more of an ecosystem’s biomass, or represent a more important link in the local food chain. Pandas have used up billions of conservation dollars, yet they are kind of an evolutionary oddball with their poorly evolved guts that can barely digest their chosen bamboo food, and their infamous failure to successfully mate. Koalas have a similar story. We reformed tuna fishing not out of concern for the fish, but because of concern for dolphins getting mistakenly caught. We tend to put a lot of time and effort into conserving species that we consider cute, or cool, or awe-inspiring. The condors are important decomposers of carcasses, ranging over huge distances in their search for food and efficiently returning the nutrients of dead animals back to the ecosystem. But the public outcry motivating their rescue was greatly helped by the fact that these creatures are incredibly impressive megafauna. If the turkey vulture was critically endangered, it might not get the same funding supporting its conservation.
But looking at the condors, my skepticism melted away and I was left with only gratitude that I was able to witness the grandeur of these beasts as they soared through the air; gratitude that I was able to see them myself and not only read about them in a book. I will never see a Steller’s Sea Cow, or a Great Auk, or a thylacine, or a dodo, because they disappeared before we realized what we were doing, and that extinction is a real and irreversible loss. Perhaps Gymnogyps won’t be around in 10,000 years. Their lineage originally evolved to feed on the giant carcasses from a collection of North American megafauna that is believed to have been hunted to death by humans (though that is a topic of endless debate). But if we hadn’t intervened to save the condors, we would have had to live with the guilt of knowing that we as a species committed the killing blow and did nothing to stop when we knew the reality of our crime. Instead we went to extreme lengths to save these unusual and majestic creatures because we feel empathy for them. As I watched condor 463 soar over my head, I felt relief, and pride, and hope. Success stories are important motivators for conservation, and I couldn’t help but think his wings were spelling out a “V” for victory as he flew away.