Article: Flight of the Condors
Late last year, I went on a quest to see the critically endangered California Condor in the wild. I wrote about the experience for Alta.
I’ve always wanted to see a California condor in the wild. It’s on a list I keep in my head of animals I’d like to glimpse in their natural habitats, which includes, in no particular order, a male moose with full antlers, a whale, a ringtailed cat, a hedgehog, a swarm of monarch butterflies, and any kind of monkey. But the California condor stands out because it came so close to extinction. When I was a kid, there were only nine wild condors left. At that point, in 1987, they were taken into captivity, and their future looked bleak. The idea that we could lose North America’s largest flying bird—a vulture with a wingspan of almost 10 feet—struck me as tragic even then.
But we didn’t lose the condor. Thanks to conservation efforts, it has made a comeback. There are now around 300 condors in the wild, most living in Central and Southern California, with smaller populations in Arizona and Utah. I kept thinking about this throughout 2020, a year filled with environmental disasters, from wildfires to melting permafrost to a worldwide pandemic caused by a mutating virus. Even as climate change bears down and some scientists say we’re entering an era of mass extinction, the preservation of the California condor shows that we can repair some environmental damage. Not that it was easy. Despite extensive time and resources spent, the condor is still critically endangered. Lead poisoning remains a threat, and the bird’s future is far from guaranteed. So I’m not sure whether my interest comes from ecological hope or an urge to see a rare creature while I can.