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Sky Burial: Feeding the Condor

California condor in the Pinnacles National Park | Photo: Jim Bahn/Flickr/Creative Commons License

California condors are famously in trouble. Though a successful captive breeding program has boosted condor numbers 20-fold from their low point in 1987, the future of the largest North American bird is still very much in doubt. Condors are threatened by many factors, but the greatest long-term threat would seem to be a lack of large dead mammals for the scavenging birds to eat safely.

I have a way we might fix that.

Condors face a range of threats. The birds are shot at by ignorant gunmen. They run the same risk of collision with power lines, buildings, vehicles, and wind turbines as other birds.

But the biggest threats to condors come from their efforts to find food. A study of all condor deaths since the captive breeding program rereleased its first subjects in 1991 showed that the biggest source of condor mortality had to do with eating. 98 condors had died in the wild according to the study, with the causes of death known for 76 of those mortalities. Of those birds with known causes of death, 31 died because they ate the wrong thing -- nestlings died from eating trash brought to them by their parents, and juveniles and adults died from eating carrion contaminated with lead from hunters' ammunition.

Lead contamination is a big, controversial issue. Lead shot and bullets fired at an animal can splinter when they hit bone, making it hard for scavenging animals to avoid ingesting significant amounts of the toxic heavy metal. Condors are more susceptible to lead poisoning than other scavenging birds such as eagles and vultures, partly because their digestive juices are apparently a bit more concentrated and partly because condors are better at crushing and ingesting shattered bone than their colleagues.

Wildlife advocates have long pushed for a ban on lead shot, pointing out that copper ammo doesn't pose the same poisoning threat. Predictably, the gun lobby opposes restrictions on lead shot as attacks on All That Is Holy.

Even if a comprehensive ban on shot happens -- and that would be a good thing -- that wouldn't solve the condor's dining problems. Condors evolved in a time when large animals wandered the landscapes of the West, dropping dead every once in a while and providing abundant food for scavengers. We're talking really big animals: mammoths, giant ground sloths, beavers the size of bears, bears the size of SUVs. Sabretooth salmon nine feet long swam upriver to spawn and die. There was enough meat lying around that condors faced competition from an even larger scavenger, the "Monster Bird" Teratornis, a bird with a 12-foot wingspan that probably outweighed the California condor by a factor of two.

There's not nearly so much carrion lying around these days. Anecdotal evidence has it that condor populations jumped a bit in the 1860s, when drought devastated California's free-ranging cattle herds. These days condors supplement their menu of naturally-deceased deer and such either on food deliberately provided for them by wildlife managers, which isn't the best long-term strategy, or on the leavings of deer hunters. That last habit exposes condors to the whole lead shot problem.

There are exceptions. The first time I saw a condor in the wild was at the Grand Canyon. It was actually rather an incongruous moment: I was visiting friends on the patio of their room at the El Tovar the day before we were all going to hike down to the Colorado River for a few days. Lying back on a chaise longue on the patio of a luxury resort hotel, drink in hand, I was looking skyward and a condor swept into my field of view, only about 30 feet above my head. The next day we learned that one of the Canyon's famed pack mules had taken a very unfortunate mis-step on the Bright Angel Trail a couple weeks before, and the Canyon's condors had congregated around its broken body several hundred feet below the trail. (The mule hadn't been carrying a rider.)

Even that accident essentially constituted condors being fed by humans. The mule wouldn't have fallen if it wasn't working for us. (The mule wouldn't even have existed if not for humans.) That's the way the Californian environment works these days, California used to have a lot of big animals wandering around, but we humans have successfully appropriated most of the state's ecological productivity to our own ends. Some would say to our own rear ends. There's still a whole lot of large mammal biomass wandering around the state, but most of it -- 37 million large mammals, more or less -- carries car keys and smartphones these days.

Some of you have probably guessed where I'm going with this, but let me be explicit: why don't we feed the condors?

It's not a new concept. The practice of deliberately letting scavengers eat us when we die has been engaged in by quite a number of different cultures. Tibetans call it "sky burial," an evocative term. The practice is declining in Tibet, according to Xinhua, due to a decline in vulture populations and the apparent dislike of the remaining vultures for people who've died in disinfectant-laden hospitals.

A similar practice is traditional among the Parsi people from Iran and India. Followers of Zoroastrianism among the Parsi long believed that consumption by scavengers is essential for combating the uncleanliness of human bodies no longer occupied. The practice still has adherents, though again declining populations of vultures due to toxic veterinary antibiotics such as diclofenac have been a problem.

It's true that funeral-by-scavenger is a minority practice among human cultures. Most of our societies' funerary rites likely originated as attempts to prevent our loved ones being eaten by scavengers. Even practices that have been described by some as similar to "sky burial" were actually intended to ensure quite the opposite result. Burial platforms used by some North American Native tribes, for instance, were actually more like embalming methods, with fires carefully tended beneath to dehydrate the dearly departed before entombment to make scavenging less likely.

But in an age when "green burial" is of increasing interest, it might do us well to reconsider the practice, the way we have with organ donation. In my lifetime, donating your organs after you die has gone from being considered mildly distasteful if not quite taboo to utterly laudable. (We're currently featuring an example of the good such donation can do here on KCET: check out the documentary "The Power of Two," and don't forget to register as an organ donor.)

So just as we've made it acceptable to reuse the parts of us that can be reused, shouldn't we consider whether we might recycle the remainder? The poets certainly have. Robinson Jeffers, in his work "Vulture," ruminates after telling a turkey vulture that he wasn't quite ready to be eaten:

... I was sorry to have disappointed him. To be eaten by that beak and become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes -- What a sublime end of one's body, what an enskyment; what a life after death.

Or consider Ed Abbey, who -- among other things on the topic -- said "If my carcass helps nourish the roots of a juniper tree or the wings of a vulture -- that is immortality enough for me."

People who find solace in the wild often, when making their own final arrangements, opt for cremation and scattering of their ashes in places they've loved. All I'm suggesting is that we remove that one carbon-emitting, industrial step.

Imagine it: a rustic facility far removed from human settlements. It is in the desert, because where else would we put such a thing? The condors have long since reinhabited the pinyon and juniper sky islands, flying in in increments from Tehachapi and Flagstaff over that last few generations. A drowsing matriarch, fifty years old if she's a day, opens one eye from her roost in a snag. She is old enough that she was once carefully trained to avoid the people below. No need for that now. She is revered. She has raised brood after brood in these sparsely forested hills. She knows well how to tell when the food is coming.

Far below, a small cloud of dust follows a somber truck making its way slowly along a small dirt road. There are people in the back, or at least they were. Some had long, happy lives. Others went too soon. But all of them signed up for this. They ate organic food. They avoided mercury amalgam fillings and certain antibiotics. They hiked and camped and cared for themselves well. And then, like all of us will, they passed from this life.

Meanwhile, it's a perfect day in Los Angeles. The bicycle traffic is thick on Wilshire. At Rancho La Brea, a cyclist stops. Something moves across the top of his helmet's mirror, and he looks up. Just another condor making its way across the city. He imagines his father enjoying the view from up there.

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