Grand Canyon National Park is a place that is synonymous with "big," and as the year draws to a close, it's nice to be able to look back at some good news about sightings at the park of some very big—and very rare—birds.
The Grand Canyon area is home to a small population of the largest flying land birds in North America. California condors can have a wingspan of nine and one-half feet and adults weigh up to 22 pounds. That's about a third larger than the wingspan of a Golden Eagle. Unfortunately, size doesn't always mean survival, and there are believed to be only 324 of the birds anywhere on the planet today.
That makes them among the rarest birds in the world, and 68 of them live in northern Arizona and Southern Utah. This year has brought some great news for Grand Canyon condor watchers—two new chicks were successfully hatched in the wild, and both have fledged and been observed taking their first short flights this past fall.
This brings the number of free-flying condors raised in the wild in northern Arizona up to nine—three of them from the same breeding pair at Grand Canyon.
An update from the park earlier this month notes that both fledglings were doing well as of their last sightings. Their parents are seen from time to time flying below or occasionally above the south rim, but the rest of the condors are spending their time mostly on the North Kaibab National Forest, up in southern Utah, or in the Vermilion Cliffs area north of the Grand Canyon.
Although they previously ranged from Canada to Mexico, shooting, poisoning from lead and DDT, egg collecting, and general habitat degradation began to take a heavy toll on condor populations in the 1800s. Since the birds are scavengers, feeding on dead animals, they are especially susceptible to lead poisoning from ammunition fragments in wildlife carcasses.
Between the mid-1880s and 1924, there were scattered reports of condors in Arizona, with the last sighting near the town of Williams in 1924. By 1982, the total population had dwindled to just 22 birds in California. The only hope of avoiding extinction seemed to be captive breeding of the birds, followed by reintroduction of captive-bred condors in 1992 in California, and in 1996 in Arizona. The establishment of the second geographically separate condor population in Arizona offers insurance against loss of the species through a single catastrophic event, and return condors to an additional portion of their historic range.
Although the birds have a long way to go to ensure their survival, great progress has been made in the past two decades. The recovery project is an excellent example of cooperation among government agencies and private conservation groups, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Arizona Game and Fish Department, Utah Department of Natural Resources, the Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Diego Zoos, the Hualapai Tribe, the Navajo Nation, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Grand Canyon National Park, Kaibab National Forest, and The Peregrine Fund.
If you're visiting Grand Canyon, keep your eyes open for these impressive birds. You're most likely to spot them during warmer weather, from April to September. Don't be surprised to see them from easily accessed areas on both the North and South Rim.