Decimating Birds: the long, slow death of a meme. Episode I – El Condor Pasa

17 May 2006

Nearly two weeks ago, Carel tagged me with a "meme" which codes for a list of ten "most beautiful" birds. In spite of my innate aversion to the hokum that is modern memetics, I'm happy for an chance to highlight a decet of my favorite feather-bearers.

Beauty, of course, is a tricky concept. You may find my aesthetic excessively beholden, but I stand by my selections. In accordance with the rules I've be-astrixed the species I've seen in the wild. In disaccordance with the rules I will neglect to select successors, happy to watch this meme die, as I place my hands around its neck and twist.

To further the agony, this list will be serialized.

1) California Condor* (Gymnogyps californianus).

Some may find the selection of bald-headed scavenger to top my list of beautiful birds a bit questionable. Those people have obviously have not seen a California Condor in flight. My astrix however is a bit of stretch. I saw three captive-raised condors at the south rim of the Grand Canyon in the summer of 2000. They were three of more than 49 released in and around the canyon over the past 10 years. Despite the bird's name, fully half of the current "wild" Condor population lives in Arizona. The struggle to maintain this Pleistocene relict1 is not so much an up-hill battle as a giant vertical leap, but seeing an animal with a 3-meter wingspan take to the air provides some needed inspiration at least.

Fossil evidence shows that Condors occupied the canyon in prehistory. Analysis of fossil nests suggests that the Condors there fed largely on "megafauna" (mammoths, camels, horses etc.) and the extinction of many of these large mammals following the arrival of humans some 10,000 years ago may have prefigured the Condor's decline across much of western North America. Stable isotope evidence suggests that Condors living near the coast ("near" being a relative term for an animal that can easily soar hundreds of miles in a day) used the carcasses of marine mammals as a supplemental food source, allowing them to persist long after Condors in the interior disappeared. This study may have implications for the attempt to re-establish a viable Condor population in California.

Condors in the wild today, including those living in the canyon, have developed the detrimental habits of eating lead-tainted carrion and human garbage. No word on whether the trash cans at the Condor Gulch section of Disney's California Adventure theme park are Condor-proof.

It's a tempting to think of the natural world as a perfectly balanced system, perturbed only by the machinations of a problematic bipedal ape. Of course a system in perfect equilibrium is a static system, one in which evolution is unnecessary. The biosphere is actually an oblate spheroid, a historical melange of the hyper-successful, the merely mediocre and the doomed. From this perspective our efforts to save a bird who has become something of an evolutionary anachronism may seem futile. In fact it almost certainly is. But even if our struggles to save Gymnogyps bring only failure, that failure should at least serve as a valuable lesson for our own species which may also fall rapidly out of style in the not-so-distant future.

I've never seen a Condor at the observatory perched atop the mountain behind the house where I grew up, but I have seen a Condor-Lady there. That, however, is another story.

Rigor Vitae has a nice post on condors that touches on many of the same themes.

Episode II of Decimating Birds will treat another endangered bird of prey, but one doing quite a bit better than the Condors.

1Relict is a term for a species which was once widespread and successful (or part of a formerly successful group) but now has a restricted range and population. The concept and term are perhaps not so misleading as the more popular oxymoronic "living fossil", though one person's relict could be another's highly specialized endemic.

Much like the Condor, a number of plant species co-evolved with the Pleistocene megafauna, using them not as a food source but as a seed dispersal vector. Some of these, such as the well-loved avocado (Persea americana) were able to take advantage of the agricultural abilities of the very species that exterminated the ground sloths and gompotheres whose large digestive tracts were so crucial to the plants pre-cultivar survival.

The wonderful recent report of Condors nesting in Big Sur also brought to light a previously unknown relationship with another relict species, Sequoia sempervirens, the Coast Redwood.

8 Responses to “Decimating Birds: the long, slow death of a meme. Episode I – El Condor Pasa”

  1. Chelsea Says:

    You’re right, it’s hard to know how much garbage an actual condor would be privy to at Condor Flats, although Disney’s pretty good at keeping their trash covered. I was able to verify that entrees from Corn Dog Castle are barred from leaving said dining attraction, as attempted escape via the surrounding moat of gastric juice renders them cornless and thus non-viable.

  2. carel Says:

    Well excuooooooooooooze me!! My attitude toward memes isn’t quite as homicidal as yours, but I saw some serious perseveration going on, and thought it was time to bat the thing over to some people who’d have a new take on the thing. I feel preety good about my aim (probably better than you do). Nice post!

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