Growing Up with California Condors

Posted by ardeidae on November 09, 2005

California CondorAlthough I’m fond of birds in general, the California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) is a bird that has been of particular interest to me for quite some time. I’m not sure exactly how long, but I think maybe since reading about them as a kid. Seeing their size and knowing they’re endangered kinda leaves a mark. When I saw this bird in person earlier this year, I was able to appreciate the true splendor it possessed.

This morning I received an email from someone in Santa Barbara, California with a wonderful recollection of growing up with the California Condor in the late 1940’s through the early 1960’s. It was well before the dramatic population decline, which ultimately resulted in all remaining 22 condors to be brought into a captive breeding program in the 1980’s.

This person allowed me to share his story with you, as long as I kept him anonymous. “Old prejudice, about our names appearing in the papers only three times; birth, marriage, death.” He’ll simply be known as “Mike in Santa Barbara”.

In 1872, my family acquired a ranch in the backcountry near Gorman, CA. It is no longer in the family as of nine years ago but I spent many of my childhood and teen years there driving an flying back and forth from LA. Since in those days it was Condor Central, being in Ventura County; but only reachable through LA and a tiny sliver of Kern. In the ranch house all the windows that looked out towards the Antelope Valley from the 5000’ elevation were plate glass because we usually had a pretty fair collection of optics for use. Down canyon there were two trees that were perfectly situated for Condors’ evening roosts. When the sun came up they could drop off the trees with plenty of built in altitude and ride the weak up canyon currents to catch stronger thermals over the flats.

I can’t really estimate the number of birds I have watched settle in for the night after very meticulous preening and, neck stretching yawns. We stopped cattle operations on the ranch after WWII and we never hunted it at all preferring to encourage the wildlife with spring improvements, bubblers and recovery from long cattle use. This included chaining and disking former grass flats that had brushed over. So, essentially there was about 600 acres plus of land that closely resembled the past juniper-pinon woodland, up to the five stands of relic Ponderosas on the peaks. Restoration of perennial grassland is a real management task for a few years until you finally get the right surface micro-profile to resist the invasive annuals. What this meant is that we had lots of Condors who relished the open spaces we had created. A condor will drop down for a dead ground squirrel just as fast as they will for a dead calf. The squirrel appears to be at the lower range of “worth the effort”. Since we walked and rode the ranch a lot we got pretty familiar with the wildlife populations and watched the deer go through the roof with cougar bounties. We were always careful to find out what whiskey the District Ranger and the government cat hunter drank so that they would have happy holidays and stay the hell out of our hair. That was our only concession to the no hunting rule. When the deer populations spike, the number of malformations seems to go up too. So we culled the cripples and very old bucks. Cut the bullet out and made sure the carcass ended up on one of the flats. My little bro and I used to pack lunch, slather on the Deet for the deerflies and ticks; sit in the shade of a big old pinon and watch the black dots in the sky resolve themselves into condors.

Watching a condor on the ground get airborne is interesting. They seem to have mental maps that say, if the temp is this and the wind is that, then I will probably find some lift there. They are also masters of the ground effect air, knowing just where to run until they can get their wings out to full span, give one or two beats that kick up dust, and then skim the vegetation down slope gaining practical altitude, with minute adjustments of flight feathers to create higher air velocity over lifting surfaces until…right there, lift! Careful flat circle back into it and…there it is again! OK, good to go. Wingtip feathers toward the thermal are adjusted are adjusted to balance lift on the opposite wing tip in the bank. (I can’t do that. If I bank too far, my metal wing tip on the low side goes to zero relative airspeed and stalls. If I just had feathers.) Then up, up, up and eventually out of sight unless your binocs were good.

I no longer relate condor experiences since, in this day and age, they sound like tall tales. But, every once in a while I go into our backcountry cheating towards the Sisquoic until I get a good observation post. Thanks to the program I’ve gotten some pretty good observations of my old friends. Thought you might get a kick out of this.

Santa Barbara, CA

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