18 April, 2006

Big bird

In Pinnacles National Monument, I took a couple hours to make cursory observations of the Life of Condor.

California condors are big. I mean big like I was using binoculars to make out one guy's head when its flight feathers scraped my forehead. Big like it was landing on a rock a quarter mile away and I had to hold onto a tree-trunk from the wind.

They are ugly. Fugly. Rumor has it that they went damn-near extinct because their mothers kept kicking them out of the nest before they could fly after telling the fathers, "You can't convince me that I gave birth to that thing."

They are dominant. One landed on a rock and a big old redheaded turkey vulture yielded its seat as readily as a sparrow giving up to a jay, a jay to a crow, or a crow to a vulture. But those metaphors don't do the size difference justice. The condor was a good twice the size of the vulture. The nervous buzzard moved to a nearby pinnacle of rock and sat there for a minute until the condor ruffled its feathers. That sent the vulture immediately off on a high wheeling flight to find a new roost.

They are slow and strong. They eat dead calves. It takes them a day to get around to eating. At that point they fly around, pulling on the cadaver. A crew member said they will drag it all over unless the corpse is chained to the ground.

They look dumb, even if they are smart. They wear numbers on their necks, like football players. More than 90 percent of their food comes from people.

They travel in packs. They go on road trips together -- 11 of them were gone last week and came back just before the weekend.

In other words, the life of condor is one of being big, ugly, dominant, slow, strong and dumb. Why do I think it should be the national emblem of the United States?

Oh yeah. A couple counter-arguments:

They are organic. At Pinnacles, the feeding crew uses only organic calves. (That keeps the condor meat organic, making it more marketable at fine stores like Whole Foods.)

And the real reason: they are on their way back from extinction.


Ugly?! Clearly you were not socialized as a child to think they were adorably, awkwardly cute. I'm sure somewhere I have a California Condor Coloring Contest Page that sent ten cents to some rehabilitation fund.

Then again, you probably weren't socialized as a child to have warm and fuzzy feelings about American imperialists either. But I think the former was more useful from a wildlife preservation point of view.  

Posted by Saheli

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