Last September with two friends, Annie and I backpacked for nine days in the Grand Canyon. We took a little-known route we discovered 25 years ago, off the North Rim, down Cranberry Canyon, over the Redwall to the Colorado River, and then back up through Tapeats Amphitheatre. It was strenuous at times, scaling steep walls, searching out routes, carrying all our gear and several days’ worth of water on our backs. We happily slept out under the stars and saw almost no one else the entire time. That is, no one except Condor 03.
It was our second day out, at the end of Cranberry Canyon just as we reached our first view of the Colorado River 2,000 feet below. At first we thought he was just a big buzzard. He flapped his wings once, maybe twice, soaring up the river, turning, catching another updraft, circling, and then soaring back downstream. It was a beautiful sight, and we stared, unbelieving. The bird seemed huge . . . because he was. As he flew closer, we guessed his wingspan was nearly seven feet. We then realized he must be a condor. And it was clear that he was also checking us out as he flew over. Then off he flew, probably up some side canyon.
We camped right there that night, at the top of the Redwall. We could hear the Colorado below, but it was muffled deep in the Canyon. There wasn’t much moon, so the sky was full of stars.
Annie was up at first light, and there he was, sitting on the edge of the Redwall just 30 feet away watching us, unmoving, unblinking, just calmly checking us out. Was he wondering if we were breakfast? Condors are quite curious . . . and incredibly ugly, so ugly we think they’re actually pretty cute (sort of like our Pug). He was enormous, with hunched shoulders, a black punk style ruff, and a red rumpled leathery head.
We moved slowly and took pictures. He just stared, unfazed. He must have sat there for a good 15 minutes. Then with a short jump, he dropped off the edge, spread his wings, and soared away downriver. We were smitten, feeling we’d been touched by something special.
We had noticed that on one of his wings there was a tag with the number 03 and a small antenna. After we hiked out of the Canyon a week later, we visited the backcountry rangers to report our sighting and discovered they knew all about him. In fact they know all about each of the condors now living in the Grand Canyon. All are tagged and carry radio transmitters, and the welfare of every one of these condors is monitored closely.
Twenty-five years ago these birds were on the very brink of extinction. There are many reasons for their disappearance . . . loss of habitat, hunting, pesticides . . . but the major cause for their deaths recently has been lead poisoning. Condors are scavengers, and many of the dead animals they eat have been shot with lead shot, which the condors inadvertently ingest when feeding. The lead fragments lodge in the gullet and poison the birds.
In 1982, just nine California condors remained in the wild, all in California. Wildlife biologists then took the controversial step of capturing all the wild condors and breeding them in captivity. In 1986 the last wild California condor was captured and for the next five years there were none in the wild. The future of the species rested with this handful of birds and the biologists working with them. Remarkably, this captive breed-and-release program worked.
There are now over 150 California condors back in the wild. Many were hatched and raised in captivity and then released. Some now have bred in the wild. In the Grand Canyon there had been no condors since the 1920s. The Canyon, though, is a perfect environment for condors . . . remote, open, with updrafts to soar on. So when captive birds were ready to be released back into the wild, half were released in California and half at the Grand Canyon.
Annie and I have been in the Canyon six times, but this was the first time we had seen a condor. The birds are doing well now, and their presence is becoming more common. It is illegal to shoot them, and they have few natural predators. And the vast majority of hunters in Arizona, California, Utah and Nevada have voluntarily switched from lead ammunition to copper or steel. So it looks like condors may be here to stay.
And our bird, Condor 03? The rangers told us he was an 11-year-old male who was raised from an egg in captivity and released at the Vermillion Cliffs just east of the Grand Canyon when he was three. He paired with a female in the wild, but she died after only a few years from lead poisoning. He is now on his own.
And our sighting, high up on the Redwall? The rangers also told us they thought Condor 03 was probably very curious about us, as “nobody but condors and rattlesnakes go where you were.”