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Condors on the Edge: Stepping Back from the Brink of Extinction

In late April, Angie and I got a permit to hike Angel's Landing in Zion National Park. I've always been a little afraid of heights, so I had to muster up the courage to get out on the knife-edge ridge to the top. When we reached Scout's Landing, I could feel the nerves flaring up as we approached the edge of the thousand foot cliff and looked ahead to the trail that snakes up the side of the ridge.

Starting our hike to Angel's Landing in Zion National Park

Gazing up at the knife-edge ridge to Angel's Landing, I had to ignore my fear of heights

I was distracted by a small kettle of Turkey Vultures rising up on the thermals behind the cliff. I had read that a small population of California Condors had been reintroduced to Zion and at times they are spotted in this area. So I raised my binoculars to the sky and searched for differences in the birds soaring above us.

I gasped in awe upon realizing that several of the birds were tagged condors. Not only was their wingspan much bigger, but the white triangular patches under the leading edge of the wing and orange patagial tags identifying each individual condor were conspicuous and different from what we saw on the wings of the vultures.

The beckoning allure of the condors was enough for me to forget about my fear of heights. We had to get up the trail to get a closer look at these magnificent birds!

What happened to the California Condor?

The California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) is one of the most critically endangered species in the world. Populations declined throughout the 20th century due to habitat loss, hunting, and lead contamination and by the early 1980s only a handful of individuals were surviving in the wild.

Conservation efforts began in the late 1980s to increase the population and genetic diversity. As numbers slowly grew, they were reintroduced to places like the Grand Canyon, Big Sur, and Zion. The wild population is most recently estimated to number around 350 wild flying birds.

Condors in Zion

California Condors were reintroduced to Zion National Park in 1996. Since then, biologists have been monitoring the population closely and providing supplemental food sources to help mitigate lead poisoning. The birds have helped return ecological health to the park in addition to increasing birdwatching tourism and conservation education. While the recovery of the California Condor population is a remarkable achievement, it is still too soon celebrate. These birds continue to face imminent threats.

Are they sick?

While hiking the narrow ridgeline to Angel's Landing, we encountered a condor sitting on a rock near the trail that appeared to have no fear of us. Angie snapped the following photos showing just how much the bird tolerated our presence.

This begged the question, do they just not have a natural fear of humans or are they sick? Or are they getting habituated to people feeding them? I hope not.

Right around the same week, we saw reports in the news that as many as 21 California Condors had died from highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI). This virus made its way to the United States and Canada from Eurasia in 2021 and has been affecting domestic poultry - particularly noticed on the shelves of grocery stores when the prices of eggs almost doubled in early 2023 - and wild bird populations. The disease, which has affected mostly waterbirds and gulls, expresses itself in the form of respiratory distress, neurological symptoms, and sudden death.

This concerning news compelled the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to create a vaccine to help protect California Condors against HPAI. The vaccine will be administered first to 20 Black Vultures and depending on the results, later will be given to 25 captive California Condors.

Even if APHIS finds a way to prevent and mitigate the impact of HPAI on wild California Condors, the species will still be vulnerable to extinction through the ingestion of lead in bullet-ridden animal carcasses left by hunters. Lead poisoning is the number one killer of California Condors.

What's the Current Status in Zion?

Currently, no birds in Zion National Park have died from HPAI. Thus, it's a good bet that the vultures loitering close to us on the ridge to Angel's Landing were not sick. That means they were either naturally without fear or looking for handouts.

It will be interesting to watch the progression of condor-human interaction over the coming years at Angel's Landing. One Park ranger was telling people to scare the birds off if they landed on the rocks too close to the trail. I was conflicted hearing that. I agree that no wild bird should be getting too comfortable with dangerous humans, but I also know that there aren't an abundance of perches on that narrow ridgeline far from the trail.

It will be important to do a better job of educating visitors about the condors and the importance of this popular area to their survival. The bulk of people we saw along the ridgeline didn't have any idea that these vultures soaring around us were condors. Now that permits are required for entry, perhaps the Park Service could provide information about this being vital condor habitat along with the issued permit. And if there is a proper way to behave around the condors (e.g. not feeding, not touching, or scaring them off if that is the best approach) those details would be helpful to know ahead of time.

To the Top

I love these stories. Well, the recovery part of the story. Seeing such a critically endangered species in the rawest, wildest of landscapes gives me hope beyond belief. The human race has demonstrated time and again that we can do what is necessary to help recover sensitive species and even entire habitats if we just put our minds and actions together to do what is right. I'm confident, we can do what is right and bring this magnificent (although in my honest opinion a little ugly), primeval creature back from the brink of extinction and up to the top of the rocky crags where it belongs.

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