It’s also one of the rarest birds in the world, a species so endangered that a few decades ago, it numbered in the low twenties. The California Condor is a creature on the precipice; it’s also a creature that’s truly incredible, something that needs to be seen to be believed. And believed in, in order to be saved.
Condors appear to live at a different pace from other birds, free from the frantic need to either hunt or avoid hunters. Everything about them is slow, sweeping, and seemingly thoughtful. Besides being so much larger than even eagles, they’re very long lived, capable of reaching sixty years or more. Accordingly, they’re much slower to breed, and their young take much longer to mature when compared to other species. Time isn’t of the essence for them like it is for other animals, and everything about them is methodical. They are the leviathans of the sky, ranging across their territory looking for carcasses. Once they find a meal, their size gives them obvious precedence, as well as the ability to eat a much larger share. According to Cornell University, these massive birds can even bring some away with them for later. Condors can take off with as much as three pounds of meat sitting in their crop, the intermediary pouch where swallowed food rests before being pushed into the stomach. If that wasn’t impressive enough, they also have the ability to last more than a week without eating.
Condors can weigh up to twenty pounds, a staggering total for an animal specially designed for flight. Large condors can be four feet long, and, coupled with their immense wingspan in flight, no other North American bird compares. Their feathers are an ominous shade of black, but their heads are a vibrant hue of oranges and reddish pinks. It’s startling to see such color at the top of the animal’s long neck, and like other vultures, condors have truly bald heads, an adaptation that allows them to gorge on carrion without contaminating their feathers. Adding to their prehistoric appearance is the fact that these great birds once soared over most of North America, contemporaries of mammoths and other bygone gigantic mammals. As those species went extinct, in large part due to the emergence of a dangerous new predator, early man, the condor’s range began to shrink, and after 9,000 BC they were largely found along the western edge of the United States. Ironically, eleven thousand years later, man is still this great bird’s bane.
As recently as the founding of our nation, the California Condor was a prolific animal. The famous Lewis and Clark expedition of the early 1800s encountered condors in the Pacific Northwest, and both men were suitably impressed by what Meriwether Lewis surmised was “the largest bird of North America.” Within two hundred years of its exposure to modern man, however, the condor was all but gone. By the 1980s, less than thirty California Condors were alive in the world, none of them in the wild. The past three decades have seen fevered conservation attempts to save this species, culminating with a captive breeding program that has since allowed for the release of a small number of condors back into the wild. A few hundred birds now live in a tiny stretch of territory in California, Utah, and Arizona, but these efforts have only succeeded in buying some time. The tragedy of it all is that condors are simply doing what they have done for millennia, removing the dead and cleaning up after predators. They don’t realize that they’re now being exposed to something unspeakably terrible in the process.
The expanse of civilization and the eradication of many natural predators has meant that man is now the dominant predator in most areas, whether for food or recreation. To the condor, a meal is a meal, but unlike other animals, man leaves unintended refuse whenever he hunts. Bullets fragment when they impact an animal, embedding tiny shards of metal throughout the flesh. Condors eating the flesh of a slain animal are eating those fragments as well, and since most bullets are still made with lead, a well-known toxic metal, what results is a slow-acting, long-lived poison that gets ingested with every bite. Once swallowed, lead fragments begin to seep toxin into the animal’s system. Prolonged exposure to lead is well known to be dangerous to many species, including our own. The condor has great size and a scavenger’s iron stomach on its side, so it’s less likely to perish as fast as a smaller bird like a Bald Eagle would when it swallows lead. That fortitude doesn’t mean a reprieve, however. If anything, it guarantees a slower, even more miserable death.
Rather than kill a condor directly, lead interferes with its bodily systems, specifically the crop. It ceases to function. The condor can eat its fill, but the crop no longer transfers food into its stomach. Anything swallowed remains in the crop until it turns rancid and the bird vomits it up. The condor, unable to understand why it doesn’t feel full, tries to eat again. And again. And again. Its crop won’t work, and slowly, inevitably, the bird starves to death. It may be an even worse death than being shot outright, because hope is right in front of it: it can see food right there, food it knows will make it better. It eats to bursting, again and again, until it becomes too weak to keep trying. Then it’s a matter of wasting away until its body shuts down, or something comes by and eats it. Liberty Wildlife plays an important role in the race to save the California Condor by treating those poisoned condors that are discovered before they die. Sometimes, we can reverse it. Sometimes. But even then, once they go back to their range they’re almost invariably going to consume lead fragments again and restart the process.
Condors are meant for a different pace of life than most birds. They breed slowly, maybe a single offspring a year. Those few babies are dependent upon their parents for almost a full year, and young birds won’t be eligible to breed until they reach sexual maturity, around six or seven years old. It’s a plodding pace that otherwise fits such a unique animal. Unfortunately, their reproductive rate is the equivalent of using a spoon to empty water out of a sinking ship. Those condors that remain are falling prey to lead poisoning far faster than they can even breed, let alone raise young, let alone see those new birds mature. There’s no way for them to make up the losses fast enough.
The only way to repair this sinking ship is to plug the holes, without a moment to spare. For the incredible California Condor, there is but one gaping hole in the hull, and only one way to plug it: either lead bullets have to go extinct, or they will.