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flight of the condor

I was four years old and bouncing around in the back of my dad's pickup truck. We were zipping down a narrow, windy road deep in the mountains of Northern California, on our way back to Grandpa's ranch from a visit to the big city (Forbestown -- they had a store).

Suddenly a giant shadow blocked out the bright summer sun. I looked up and saw the biggest buzzard there ever was, an immense black bird with a grotesquely homely bald head and face -- and he seemed to be keeping pace with the truck.

I saw that bird, and he saw me, and for a few minutes I honestly feared that bird was going to grab me in its gnarly talons and carry me off, while Dad and Grandpa continued to chatter mindlessly in the cabin -- this bird was that big. I couldn't come up with a strategy to defend myself if it tried to grab me.

Eventually the gigantic bird lost interest and, with a mighty, effortless flap, parted company with us.

A few years later I saw a photo of a California condor and I realized that my scary feathered friend had been no buzzard. It seems I'd had an encounter with a condor in the wild.

Since then I've felt a kinship with the California condor, and my heart broke when the last free condor was caught in 1987. I was so disappointed at the seeming inevitability of their extinction, but part of me wanted to let that one last bird fly free as long as it could. I really didn't think that prehistoric species could turn their fate around.

I'm happy to report that my pessimism was misplaced.

turning it around
I didn't really believe there was any cause for hope until I heard they were going to start releasing condors back into the wild. I knew condors were not easy to raise, and that exposure to humans could mess them up for life, so I really hoped for the best and kept my fingers crossed. And that big black bird, so majestic in the sky and so very, very ugly up close and personal, refused to die. With a little -- OK a LOT of help from its friends, the California condor is making a comeback and I couldn't be more thrilled about that.

The biggest threat to the California condor today is lead. The birds can't tell when something they're eating has lead in it and it's highly toxic to them and their eggs.

no thanks to johnny cash
So my spousal unit says to me, "I don't want to tell you what Johnny Cash did. It will make you hate him forever." Of course I had to insist on hearing the story, and Wikipedia confirms this. It turns out Johnny Cash crashed his car in the forest near the central California coast. It burst into flames and burned down a condor conservatory, killing 49 of the endangered birds and making me hate him forever.

They fell in to a burning ring of fire. Thanks, man in black, you set the restoration project many, many years, ya big jerk. They should have stuck you in Folsom Prison.


the flight of the condor
janice leber 2014

The sky was black, shadows covered the land:
a flock of condors taken to the skies again
wing to wing, riding updrafts to the sky
one graceful flap, that's the way they say goodbye

it's the flight of the condor, the california condor
once ruling the whole horizon here
in the course of a lifetime, my california lifetime
how did the condor disappear?

The mood was black, shadows covered her face:
the last free condor must be taken from its place
no more to fly, so majestic and free
if they're to live, this is the way it must be

no more flight of the condor, the california condor
trapped up in a net of despair
in the course of its lifetime, the california condor
had to be plucked from the air

take this bird from its heritage
the humans have another plan
there's only a handful of condors left
we gotta save every one that we can.

The sky was black, the cliffs were windy and grey
the first free condor blinked at the new light of day
she stretched her wings, looking out over the range
no nets or cages! freedom felt exciting and strange

it's the flight of the condor, the california condor
once again belongs to the sky
in the course of our lifetime, the california condor
must be allowed to survive:
the California Condor deserves to fly.

making the video
The video elements are almost entirely lifted from features produced by the Oregon Zoo, where a lot of California condors are being raised these days. The Ventana Wildlife Society also has great video and information. And someone posted a YouTube video of condors flying over Utah, which was pretty amazing.

The links for everything and more are at the bottom of this page and on the YouTube video page.

The South American cousin
In making this video I learned that the California condor and the Andean condor are very nearly identical, but the California condor has slightly different markings and, unlike our local version, the condors in the Andes will kill prey for food. The California condor subsists on carrion. They're natural born recyclers.

So, this incredibly huge, hulking bird is the definition of BUTTERFACE. The bird itself is gorgeous, but -- her FACE. Arggh. I'm not even sure a mother could love that. And this ugly-ass bird eats dead stuff. So, why am I all nostalgic and loving toward this rough customer? Well, partly because I'm pretty sure I saw one in the wild when I was a very small child -- but also because, as the song goes, "in the course of my lifetime" this bird very nearly went extinct right before my eyes. I am a California native and I did not want to see that happen on my watch.

So this song and video are a shout-out to the dedicated and loving folks who are snatching this ugly, glorious bird back from the edge of extinction. It's just one species and there are so many that are endangered, but it's a spectacular species that belongs in the sky and I'm glad it's back.

The California condor deserves to fly.


Wild California Condors Made Here - YouTube
California condors: The recovery begins - YouTube
California condors: Here they soared - YouTube
Flying giants--rare California condors return to Utah skies ...
California condor | Oregon Zoo
Basic Facts About California Condors - Defenders of Wildlife
California Condor - National Geographic
California Condor - The Peregrine Fund
Ventana Wildlife Society - California Condor Reintroduction