At the Zoo
SHE NEEDS TO DO NOTHING MORE than stand still to attract a crowd.
Perched on her favorite rock outcropping in the spacious exhibit at the Santa Barbara Zoo, her wings clad in shiny black feathers that rustle like taffeta, California Condor 174 is a giant among birds. She towers at four feet (1.29 meters) tall—taller than the average seven-year-old girl—and weighs nearly thirty pounds (almost fourteen kilograms, or as much as a hundred baseballs). Her species is the largest species of bird in all of North America. Even her feathers are giants: some of them grow two feet (sixty-one centimeters) long. No wonder a group of people—including youngsters smaller than she—has gathered to watch her.
She turns her orange neck and head to face the onlookers. Her red, knowing eyes briefly meet ours. It feels like a meeting of minds. With her stooped posture and bald, wrinkled, jowly head, she looks like a wizened sorceress, a sage, a powerful, wise old woman. When she raises her wings, holding them slightly open, she looks like she’s about to give a blessing—or cast a spell.
Then, the magic really happens: she hops twice, flaps thrice, and spreads her wings nearly ten feet (over three meters) wide to sail across her enormous pen.
“Wow! Look how big those wings are!” says a little girl wearing a pink sweatshirt and American flag sneakers.
“Spread your wings!” a bearded dad urges his youngest daughter. Immediately, the little girl and her three siblings rush to compare their arm span to a life-size sign opposite the pen, showing a condor’s yawning wingspan.
Thanks to these astonishing wings, a California condor can not only fly at a speed of 55 miles (88 kilometers) an hour but also soar to 15,000 feet (4,572 meters). Even more impressive, a condor can glide for miles without flapping, riding on rising currents of hot air called thermals and steering with just its tail and the tips of its long flight feathers. Condors don’t just traverse heaven; they dwell there.
It’s easy to see why these birds have thrilled and fascinated people for thousands of years. Once California condors were found in western skies from Canada to Mexico, and some lived as far east as Florida. Native people revered them. To many tribes, the condor was sacred. This was with good reason: Flying so high, the condor sees all. And these birds may live for sixty or more years—long enough to grow wise.
But the California condor was not sacred to Western settlers. Far from it. The newcomers shot the birds for sport. Ranchers accused them—falsely—of killing livestock. By the time conservationists realized condors were disappearing, their slide into extinction seemed unavoidable.
“Aren’t they endangered?” a ponytailed woman watching 174 wonders.
“They are critically endangered!” answers Dr. Estelle Sandhaus. In fact, Estelle tells the visitor, in 1982 there were fewer than two dozen of them left alive on the planet—and when the last one was captured in Southern California in April 1987, the California condor was officially extinct in the wild.
A firecracker of a woman, standing five feet one inch tall, with shining brown hair, dancing brown eyes, and a laugh as exuberant as a waterfall, 41-year-old Estelle is the Santa Barbara Zoo’s director of conservation science. A big part of her job is to help make sure California condors forever grace North American skies.
And that’s Condor 174’s job, too. Born March 4, 1998 at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, 174 came to Santa Barbara on October 15, 2012, where she is now serving as a mentor to younger birds. “She’s the most dominant bird,” Estelle explains. “She’s got sass. She’s got attitude. She knows she’s the boss.”
At the moment, 174’s mentee is young Condor 603. She’s the youngest of the four California condors at the zoo (two others are not on display). Condor 603 was born in the wild but suffered a wing injury and was brought to the zoo. She can fly, but not well. At age three, she’s still a child by condor standards. She’s got much to learn—including condor manners.
Condors are social creatures, like people. They like to do things in groups. When some of the captive birds were first moved to an exhibit at the Santa Barbara Zoo, a keeper noted that the whole group, together, carefully plucked every California poppy that was in bloom in the exhibit, and put them all in a pile in the corner. Then the flock moved the pile. The first time one of the zoo’s condors landed on the weighing scale, all the other condors then jumped on it. Because togetherness is important, 603’s education includes learning how a young condor should behave around her elders at mealtime.
“They’re going to get rabbits today,” announces zoo bird keeper Ellie Culip. The condors eat four times a week. (In the wild, they sometimes eat so much they can’t fly for several hours, and they might not eat at all for several days afterward.) On today’s menu are white rabbits that were obtained from a breeder, humanely killed, then frozen, and thawed.
Ellie walks inside a concrete tunnel built into the artificial rock outcropping in the exhibit. She dons plastic gloves and reaches into a white plastic bucket for the first of the two rabbits. There are two narrow tunnels built into the rock, each just a little longer than Ellie’s arm. Ellie will use one of these tunnels to push the food through to the condors on the other side.
Why not just hand the birds the carcass? “We never let them see us with the food,” says Ellie. If wild condors are fed by humans, they’ll search out people—and that can be dangerous for an entire flock, because they learn from watching each other. And though these condors aren’t slated for release—both will probably stay at a zoo for breeding or to mentor other condors—“we don’t want to limit their possibilities for the future if management changes,” Ellie says.
But it’s difficult to fool a condor. An orange face appears at the end of one of the tunnels. It’s 174. “They’re smart birds,” she explains. “They know I’m feeding them. But at least they never see me putting food down!”
As soon as it appears at the other end of the tunnel, 174 instantly grabs the rabbit with her beak. Then Ellie pushes the second rabbit through. This one is for young 603, but, says Ellie, “I would not be surprised if 174 kicks 603 off and wants her rabbit, too!”
This is exactly what happens. 174 yanks the second carcass away. She isn’t being a bully, she’s being a good mentor. Although condor parents lovingly feed their babies, when the chicks get older, they must learn the rules. And one of the most...