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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

The Mighty Condor

Published: June 3, 2019

By Mark Seth Lender

A condor comes by for a closer look. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender)

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Living on Earth’s Explorer in Residence Mark Seth Lender encounters one of Earth’s most impressive birds: the California Condor.

BASCOMB: The California Condor was on the verge of extinction due to lead poisoning. Then the US Fish and Wildlife Service stepped in. Now, with more than 400 birds in the wild, the condor is making a big comeback. As Living on Earth’s Explorer in Residence Mark Seth Lender reports, when it comes to Condors, big is the operative word.

El Condor Pasa

California Condor
Pinnacles National Park
© 2019 Mark Seth Lender
All Rights Reserved

Condor, bigger than a barndoor, blows on by. Wings outstretched and motionless to the naked eye. Tail feathers spread like fingers, she keeps her trim. Listen to the music of those wings, in wind. Crackling like parchment wrinkled and torn -

Condor! Air borne!

Working the thermals she spirals up and out and around again for a better look. Orderly. Curious. All life to her is an open book. Intelligent. Penurious. Her only wealth derives from that of which all life must part.

Down (the direction where she feeds).

Up (the angle that she flies).

Never hurried never too late

She only eats when someone dies.

Well-apprised, of all the perils flesh is heir to she reads the Auguries of your Fate:

Lack of a fair shake
Lost in a place where water is the exception
A bad break
Bad directions
The stain of lard on your cardigan and a middle that obfuscates toes and feet (proceeding from a confluence of daytime sleep and midnight eat)
Too much emotional freight
Up too early, home too late
Foreclosure and other forms of modern distress (these are the hands lay heavy on the chest)
A face filled with Anger, with Hate
A fast car (Inadequate brakes)
Gain without Pain
No modulation
Thin Ice
No vacation.
A Bolt from the Blue
Too Much Red Ink,
Too Much to Drink,
Too Much Action
Not Enough “THINK!”

Here I stand at the edge of this cliff wondering is she wondering how good my footing really is? Light catches her eye in a certain way, her silent reply:

“I know you, I know your thoughts and where they lead. Have no fear. No lasting harm will come to you. Only to that part that has already passed away.”

BASCOMB: That's Living on Earth’s Explorer in Residence, Mark Seth Lender.


Field Notes: Get the Lead Out!

The bald head of a California condor (for the sake of cleanliness they have no head feathers) is hot to the touch. Their body temperature runs 104 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Despite the high temperature the birds have a relatively low basal metabolic rate. They can survive long periods of starvation, and they are very long-lived. At least 45 years in the wild, maybe longer. This, if they do not succumb to lead poisoning.

Virtually all lead bullets are now alloyed with antimony, causing fragmentation on impact – this a WWII combat innovation. Generally speaking, under battle conditions, no one ate their targets. But both human hunters and condors are now eating fragmented lead left respectively, in the flesh of a kill hunters pack up and take home, and in the entrails and organs hunters leave behind. Animals shot and wounded who get away and go off to die (which happens more often than people care to admit) also become carrion readily accessible to condors, and other animals too. There is evidence that lead fragments cause brain damage in humans, especially to children. Lead kills condors outright. It was a major cause of their decline and, along with habitat loss, the greatest difficulty they now face in the wild. Condor rehabilitation centers, such as the one run by the US Fish and Wildlife Service at Hopper Mountain, are constantly chelating condors for lead poisoning.

Copper ammunition (which though slightly different from lead has excellent ballistics) would eventually eliminate the problem for condors and humans alike, but the NRA is against it.

The first time I saw condors there were seven in formation, the sound of air passing over their wings reminiscent of air whooshing over the wings of a glider. Not something you readily forget. But in addition, and as they have done every time I’ve seen them since, they drifted over to look at me, their wings still, their dark-bright eyes meeting mine. It will be terrible if they are lost to the fabric of Life on Earth.

Mark Seth Lender's website

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