One of the birds we most hoped to see in our travels in the West was the California Condor, the continent’s largest bird with an inspiring comeback story.
The condor is majestic and also kind of odd, with a wingspan of almost 10 feet and a huge body covered with black feathers resembling an overcoat. When the condor flies you can see patches of white feathers that look like racing stripes.
But it’s not easy to catch up with the condor. There are now about 300 of the raptor in the wild, sprinkled across California, Arizona, Utah and Baja California. It’s an impressive number considering the species was down to just 22 birds when wildlife managers realized the species was about to go extinct three decades ago. They caught the remaining birds, brought them into captivity and launched a breeding program that has slowly returned the birds to a portion of their range in the West.
Today, it takes some luck to see them in the wild.
We are winding up six months of travels to research a book on bird conservation . We hadn’t seen the condor, though. So as we headed east across the northern half of the U.S., we stopped in Boise, Idaho, which is home to the Peregrine Fund. The organization hosts the largest of the four condor breeding centers and has an ambitious program to revive the health of the species that had been one of the symbols of the West.
As soon as you drive up to the bluff where the Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey overlooks the Boise valley, you see the condors on a perch high in the aviary.
Condors have a regal stance and a thousand-mile stare. They also have a bald head that turns pink and scaly in adults. It’s a striking combination that helps them stand out, even while flying at remarkable heights of up to 15,000 feet.
Erin Katzner, director of Global Engagement for the Peregrine Fund, has spent the last six years making the argument for saving condors. Although the center works on behalf of raptors all around the world, the condor is now its primary focus. Started 51 years ago when the Peregrine Falcon was in danger of extinction, the Peregrine Fund engineered the falcon’s comeback. “There are so many falcons today that we can’t even keep up with them,’’ she said.