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California Condor

from What Good is a Life List?


California Condor, Los Padres National Forest, Sept. 28, 1982.

Michael and I sat on a mountain ridge at the edge of California's central valley and watched all day for the biggest bird in North America, the California Condor. It was our 20th anniversary, and the trip was Michael's gift to me.

In prehistoric times, the huge vultures ranged across the continent, but by the time we went looking for them, there were only about 20 left in the world, relentlessly squeezed by human population into an area of central California. I fervently wished for them not to go extinct, but if extinction was imminent, I wanted at least to see one, if only to offer up a farewell salute.

Michael and I waited at a certain turn on the unpaved Mill Potreros Road, marked by a Forest Service sign that was famous as a place from which to spot condors. The tan-colored foothills fell away below to the valley floor. The only moving things were a few cattle grazing on the hills. At last a speck appeared against the haze that hangs over the San Joaquin Valley. The speck grew larger and became a great bird that soared straight toward us, never flapping. After a while big white patches resolved on the undersides of the wings.

As it approached the foothills, the condor descended slowly, like an airplane coming in for a landing, until it was lower than we were. It disappeared behind a hill below us. We were wondering whether it had landed, when it soared up over the hill into view again. It passed directly over a cow that was sideways to us, and that is what gave us a shock. We knew that condors were big—I'd read that their wingspan was 9 to 10 feet—but it was still surprising to see a bird that looked wider than a cow was long.

The condor must not have found a carcass to eat, because it flapped at last. It exerted itself only for a few wingbeats, though. Soon it caught a thermal and soared in broad slow circles until it had risen far above us. Then it left its circling, like a person stepping from an elevator, set its course toward the mountain wilderness behind us, and disappeared from our view.

Within five years, the few remaining California Condors were captured, in a last-ditch effort to save them from extinction. Captive breeding has been successful, and condors have now been reintroduced in California and Arizona. But whether they can survive in a world crowded with human activity, and whether we will ever again watch wild condors that were hatched in the wild, remains to be seen.

—Diane Porter

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