I just learned, courtesy of my local newspaper, that tomorrow (September 5, 2009) is International Vulture Awareness DayConsider celebrating by stocking your feeders with carrion (which reminds me of several bad jokes, but I’ll put those at the end), cruising your local highways for road kill (aka, vulture food), or just getting out and observing these magnificent animals.

In the northern parts of North America, we have three species of vultures:

  • The most common and widespread is the Turkey Vulture, which can be found pretty much across the lower 48 U.S. states and southern Canada.
  • In the southeastern United States is the Black Vulture which, oddly enough, though very common just south of the U.S. border in Mexico, is very rarely found in border states of California, Arizona, and New Mexico.
  • The third species is the endangered California Condor, reintroduced populations of which now exist in California, Arizona, and northern Baja California, Mexico.

Vulture species diversity increases as one moves south into Mexico and Central and South America, where we find the Andean Condor, King Vulture, and the Lesser and Greater Yellow-headed Vultures.

Two interesting factoids about vultures before I let you go and enjoy them:

  • First, worldwide, vultures are an intriguing example of convergent evolution.  The New World vultures (which I’ve listed above) share similar diets, behaviors, and even appearance to the Old World vultures (e.g., Lappet-faced Vulture), but the two groups are not related taxonomically.
  • Second, many vultures in North America, particularly Turkey Vultures from the western states and provinces, are highly migratory. In fact, Turkey Vultures are one of the most numerous migrating species of raptor at the famed Veracruz River of Raptors hawk migration site in Veracruz, Mexico.

Despite being somewhat misunderstood by many people, vultures are fascinating birds that play critically important roles in virtually all of our terrestrial ecosystems. So, this Saturday, please be Vulture Aware!

Carrion joke #1: Two birders are out in the field.  One says: “Look at that  Carrion Crow.”  The other replies: “What’s he carryin’?”

Carrion joke #2: A vulture is about to get on a plane and has a dead animal under each wing.  The flight attendant stops him and says “Sorry, only one carry-on per person.”

(Image: Turkey vulture. Credit: Eric Bégin through a Creative Commons license.)

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  1. The young condor, head down and eyes carefully surveying the plateau, slid silently by less than 20 feet above my head. The south rim of the Grand Canyon, the Redwall, the Coconino sandstone, the Kaibab limestone, in all their immense beauty, was the perfect background against which to see this majestic creature. It was a young bird, a juvenile, whose head had not yet turned the color of the canyon that he presided over, but was still black with youth. And his demeanor in the air, drawing long circles around the point as he glided on the currents seemed playful and as much for fun as for serious stuff like hunting. He came around a gain, silent, his four foot wingspan blocking out the sun as his shadow passed over me, and then, for just a moment, our eyes met and a chill ran through me as we gazed into each other’s souls. And he flew off…

    I came to the Grand Canyon last night, driving the 350 miles after work so that I could hike 6 miles out and 3100 feet down to Plateau Point out on the Tonto Plateau. I got into Tusayan about 8:30 pm and turned onto Long Jim road just a mile south of the park entrance. A sign read, “No camping within 1/4 mile of the highway” so I drove a ways down the forest road, found a nice, flat place to lay out my bag, parked the car and set up my meager campsite. All I really do in a situation like this is put down my ThermaRest, lay the bag over it and cover it all with a nice afghan. You can’t ask for a cozier bed, especially when the mattress below is several inches of pine needles and Cassiopia is watching over you, sparkling between the branches of the towering fir trees all around.

    I woke at dawn, refreshed and eager for the day’s adventures. I made my way into the park, got my gear all packed and then took the shuttle over to the trailhead. I found a nice lady to take my picture next to the trail sign and then was on my way into what is arguably the most spectacular place on earth.

    The Bright Angel Trail leads all the way down to the Colorado River and it’s confluence with Bright Angel Creek. The creek was named by John Wesely Powell, the one-armed civil war veteran who was the first European to venture down the river and the trail bears the same name. It is really more of a superhighway though than a trail and hundreds of people day hike down to the rest houses at 1 1/2 or at 3 miles. A few turn around at these points while the rest go on to Indian Gardens at 4 1/2 miles. Here there are two options, to continue down to the river or to head west on the Tonto Plateau and points beyond. Myself, I was planning on just another mile and a half to a fantastic lookout south of the Tonto Trail called Plateau Point.

    The trek down is deceptively easy as it is downhill all the way. I made the six miles in less than 2 1/2 hours and was prepared to sit and eat my lunch when the California Condor found me. Gymnogyps californianus was listed on the very first Federal Endangered Species List nearly 40 years ago and the fact that it is still around today is an amazing feat of survival. By 1986 there were only 24 known California Condors in the world, three wild males and the rest captive creatures. They are not prolific breeders, pairs generally laying one egg every other year, and mortality rates among young breeders is very high. The outlook for this rare and exotic member of the Vulture family was not good, especially considering that hunters, dwindling territory, DDT and poisonous coyote bait were continuing to kill.

    But a captive breeding program was finding success and as the number of wild condors was decreasing the numbers of those in captivity was increasing. By February of 2002 there were enough captive-bred birds that it was decided to release 8 of them at the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Several would die in the coming months and more would be released in ensuing years and today one can see condors just like mine flying and frolicking among the cliffs and canyons of the national park.

    I didn’t get any good pictures of my condor, I was too entranced by this awesome bird to stop to photograph, but I will never forget that moment when our eyes met, that is a picture burned into my memory. There are lots of great websites where you can learn more about the California Condor and efforts to rejuvenate the population and you can see pics from my hike at http://photos.yahoo.com/desert_solitaire_524

    Happy Trails!

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