2nd August, 2008
While at the Grand Canyon, I was lucky to spot a condor soaring high above in the sky and shoot it, of course, with the camera. I had read and heard so much about the ‘flight of a condor’. We also attended the educational programme on the condor and its successful conservation which has brought it back from the brink of extinction.
On the wing, the movements of the condor, as it wheels in circles, are remarkably graceful. The birds flap their wings on rising from the ground, but after attaining a moderate elevation they seem to sail majestically on the air.
Wild condors inhabit large territories, often traveling 250 km (150 miles ) a day in search of carrion. They prefer large carcasses such as deer or cattle which they spot by looking for other scavengers. That led to their near extinction, since the caracasses of wild animals shot dead by bullets killed the condors too by lead poisoning. Attempts are being made to induce the hunters to use copper bullets instead of those containing lead.
Condors are basically vultures. California Condors are the largest flying land birds in North America.
The adult plumage is uniformly black, with the exception of a frill of white feathers nearly surrounding the base of the neck and, especially in the male, large patches or bands of white on the wings. As an adaptation for hygiene, the head and neck have few feathers exposing the skin to the sterilizing effects of dehydration and ultraviolet light at high altitudes, and are meticulously kept clean by the bird. The head is much flattened above. The white patch under both the wings at the armpits is diagnostic of condors (see the photographs). California Condors' huge wingspan measures up to 2.9 m, and they can weigh up to 10.4 kg.
California Condors are intertwined in many Native American cultures. There are people who believe California Condors were the origin of the Thunderbird myth, while some Western tribes regarded the California Condors as sacred beings, using feathers in religious ceremonies. The Chumash tribe believes that if the condors become completely extinct, so will the tribe. The Moche people of ancient Peru worshipped nature. They placed emphasis on animals and often depicted condors in their art. The same is true of the later Incan civilizations: the condor represented sky as one of the three celebrated animals. Vultures have been immortalized in Indian mythology too. Jatayu, one of the heroes of the great Indian epic, Ramayan, belongs to the race of vultures.
Twenty years ago, the California Condor Recovery Program began a new era when condors known as AC-4 and UN-1 produced the first egg to be laid and hatched in a managed setting. The resulting chick, Molloko, turns 20 years old on April 29, 2008. The goal of the California Condor Recovery Program is to establish two geographically separate populations, one in California and the other in Arizona. As the Recovery Program works towards this goal, the number of release sites has grown. There are four active release sites in California, one in Arizona and one in Baja California, Mexico with condors flying free.
While listening to the success story of condor, I thought of its cousin, the vulture, back home. In Delhi and most of North India (I hope it is still thriving in other parts), nearly 99% or common vultures have disappeared due to a drug, diclofenac, a common and popular analgesic; it is also used extensively in veternity medicine in farm animals. When vultures scavenged on their carcasses, they died due to diclofenac toxicity. I wonder why we can not replicate the same success story in India for our own vultures.