We hiked on, past red prickly pear cacti and peach colored cliffs, traipsing on the rocky bones of Earth herself. The majestic spire and amphitheater of Zoroaster Temple beckoned and receded. Finally we stopped for lunch, opening our packs while gazing across the chasm to the Tonto Plateau.
Suddenly a gigantic bird, a condor, drifted past like a mirage from the days of the dinosaur. His pink head twisted as he looked across the distance. Perhaps some feathers shifted within his nine foot wingspan, but no effort seemed required to speed this rare character away on the thermals.
Later back at Phantom Ranch I sat in the sun warming spent muscles when a man walked past with a silver antenna sticking out of his backpack. “Excuse me,” I called. “Would you mind sharing what you were doing up there?”
He stopped and told me he was monitoring condors, the device picks up signals from radio transmitters attached to the birds.
“I’m glad you got to see him,” he said. “That’s a male who most likely was checking on his year old chick.”
I asked about the chick’s mother. The ranger said they believe the female is still helping to raise the chick, but that she has either lost her transmitter or it has lost function. He said the condors produce an egg just once every two years. They nest on bare rock, usually on a sheltered ledge or cave high on a cliff. He described the calamity that is often the youngster’s first flight, as it tumbles from the high ledge to a rocky landing below and gradually works to regain the nest cave, learning how its big wings work in the meantime.
Condors wear radio transmitters because they are among the most endangered birds in the world. About 70 condors fly free in Arizona and it is believed that for the breeding season of 2012 only four eggs were laid. Successful breeders produce one egg, usually between February and March. If that egg fails, they may try for a replacement.
Arizona’s condors favor the remote high reaches of the Vermillion Cliffs and the Grand Canyon. Other equally limited populations live in California and Northern Baja Mexico. These carrion eaters feed on anything from dead squirrels to elk, domestic stock and sea mammals on the coast. They are premier cleaner uppers.
Condors are considered critically endangered because there are less than 50 actively breeding pairs in the wild and these are not self sustaining. In 1987 only twenty two of the birds remained and they were all captured and put into breeding programs. The Peregrine Fund, a non profit that conserves birds of prey worldwide, manages today’s reintroduced population of condors. Breeding programs continue with 6-10 birds released every year.
Lead toxicity is the leading cause of death for these magnificent animals. According to Arizona Game and Fish, all of the state’s condors are trapped twice a year and tested for lead poisoning; 45-95% test positive. Sick birds must be injected with chelating medications twice a day to help them metabolize the toxins. Some require surgery which is performed at Liberty Wildlife.
The lead comes from spent gunshot. Carrion eaters like condors consume gut piles laced with lead shot, as well as animals that were shot and not taken out. Arizona Game and Fish offers free all copper ammunition to hunters in condor territories. Every hunter needs to make the switch from lead to copper in order for condors to become a stable population.