Imagine looking skyward from the Columbia River Gorge and seeing the slowly soaring figure-eight turns of a bird with a nine-foot wingspan. Too big to be a vulture or a Golden eagle. What is it? Is it the legendary Thunderbird in flesh and feather?
In the 19th century, one didn't have to imagine such things. Visitors to the region starting with Lewis and Clark spotted, shot and sometimes captured giant California condors in our region. To hear such stories is reminiscent of scenes from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "Lost World," where dinosaurs survived into the modern age.
In earlier millennia, the fossil record indicates, huge birds did sweep our skies, some even bigger than the condor. But evidence strongly suggests that the Northwest, west of the Sierras and Cascades from northern California to southern British Columbia, was home to California condors as recently as the early 20th century.
The species nearly went extinct everywhere, and did in the wild. It barely lived on in captivity, numbering a paltry 22 birds at one time. Since the 1980s, however, scientists, zoo managers and volunteers have worked hard to revive the extremely endangered California condor in the wild. Today, over 200 of them fly the skies of southern California, Arizona, Utah and Baja, representing one of the great species recovery stories.
But the success is qualified: No one can yet walk away and call it done. The "wild" condor population is "heavily managed," according to experts. The modern landscape is fairly hostile to the birds. Contaminants and threats from power lines and wind farms are among the challenges. And the condors are hardly free of reliance of human intervention. They get ongoing help with breeding, supplemental feeding (carcasses left out for them to scavenge), their nests are cleaned of microtrash (glass, bottle caps, plastics), they're monitored for lead poisoning from bullets and shot, and tracked by GPS. In short, free of zoos, the condor's success is clear but also tenuous, according to biologists.
One aspect of the bird's recovery that hasn't been fully addressed is its reintroduction to its full range, which used to include the Pacific Northwest. If you've witnessed condors soaring today, you've likely seen them at the Grand Canyon or perhaps a preserve like southern California's Pinnacles National Monument. They are a stunning sight — a bit like super-sized buzzards, but with a kind of majesty, grace, and mouth-dropping scale. They are an exciting reminder of the world as it was. But we tend to think of their habitat as the hills of canyon country. That wasn't always so. The wet, woody Northwest apparently can serve as condor county, too.
That is the subject of a fascinating new book, "California Condors in the Pacific Northwest" by Jesse D'Elia and Susan M. Haig (Oregon State University Press, $19.95). The co-authors are wildlife specialists — D'Elia a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Portland, and Haig an ecologist at the U.S. Geological Survey Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center and professor at Oregon State in Corvallis. They take an in-depth look at the history of the condor in the territory ranging from the Redwood coast to the Gulf Islands in British Columbia. Was the condor simply a visitor here, or did they breed in these climes? And why have they disappeared? D'Elia and Haig attempt to lay out a complete record of the condor here, from the fossil records to eyewitness accounts to Native American stories and practices.
While the book is partly a Ph.D. dissertation (D'Elia's), it is also for the lay reader interested in history and the environment. It surveys every recorded condor sighting in the historical record and gathers evidence for why condors ventured this far north, what they ate and where the might have nested. They come to several interesting conclusions.
One is that is that it is very likely that Northwest condors lived and bred here, as opposed to simply being seasonal migrants. They were here year-round in large numbers, according to recorded sightings, and there are a couple of cases of young condors being taken as specimens by naturalists. Condors are slow to mature and tend to stay close to home in their early years. The Northwest had, and still has, plenty of habitat condors are known to like: high hills and cliffs with notches and caves for nesting. Also, they have been known to nest in old-growth trees and hollow tree trunks —redwoods and sequoias in California for example.
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