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Wing Nuts

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Condor photo: Phil Armitage

My wife and I are bird nuts. Our weekends are spent hiking around the hills of Los Angeles with binoculars in hand. I have a somewhat louder jaunt and am sometimes given a scowl from Christine if I unintentionally flush a bird from its tree before either of us can get a good look. She’s a much better birder. She’s quiet and aware. She knows the calls, the chirps, trills and quacks.

“Listen to that goldfinch,” I’ll tell her.

“You think that’s a goldfinch?” she’ll smirk. We argue about the call until a scrub jay flutters out of the tree in front of us. As I say, she has a really good ear.

My fascination with birds started with the condor — the largest flying land bird in North America and one of the world’s most highly profiled endangered birds.

In the mid ’80s my Dad’s cattle ranch outside of Glennville, California was one of the last places to have seen condors flying over it. I was lucky enough to have played a small part in the California Condor Recovery Program in Kern County. Although I was pretty young at the time, I did enjoy spending my time in a camouflaged blind with officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, hoping for a chance to see one of the few remaining condors fly in for a taste of preset carrion.

Today all condors have been brought into what has now become a successful breeding and recovery program, but releasing them back into the wild has had some formidable challenges.

Lead poisoning is the main cause of death for California condors. This, despite California’s ban on most lead ammunition. In 2007 Governor Schwarzenegger signed into law Assembly Bill 821, which prohibits hunting with lead ammunition from most areas of the state inhabited by the bird.

The National Rifle Association has predictably challenged the law since its inception, bringing together two opposing groups of bird nuts and gun nuts. The NRA claims that forcing hunters to use non-lead ammo on big game animals somehow infringes on the people’s right to bear arms.

The gun lobby’s supporters have also used the argument that non-lead ammo changes the trajectory of their shots, but any hunter worthy of his sport knows to re-sight when using new ammunition. Or, perhaps, one shouldn’t drink and hunt fowl at the same time. Just a thought. (ref Dick Cheney.)

And of course condors aren’t the only scavenger affected by lead poisoning. The bald eagle, our national symbol, is also susceptible to lead’s proven damage. For being such an overweening patriotic group, the NRA seems to now be moving into flag-burning territory.

Another challenge to helping protect condors and other North American birds is the fact that some Audubon societies have been forced to close shop due to pulled public funding — and in some cases, to losing the roofs right over their heads. In December the Los Angeles Times reported that the Los Angeles Audubon Society had been evicted from its headquarters in West Hollywood’s Plummer Park, due to a $41-million renovation, even though they have been there since 1937.

The good news is that the despite all these challenges, the condors are making a slow if tenuous comeback. A few months ago I received an email from Jesse Grantham, who is the California Condor Coordinator at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He informed me that a few of the tracked birds were making the long trek back to my Dad’s ranch. They haven’t been seen in Glennville since I was a kid in the ’80s.

Jesse once described the birds’ return to me as ‘genetic inheritance.’ Even though their parents have died, the chicks somehow are compelled to come back to the their ancestors’ roost. They return to the same drainages and the same exact trees as their forebears, even when all the other topography looks exactly the same.

One of the biggest worries for Fish and Wildlife officials is the non-compliance of the law, when the birds are finally starting to return. The truth in a lot of cases is that hunters and ranchers get obstinate because they’re afraid the government is out to take away their guns. I’m not sure if this is more lizard brained or bird brained.

I guess in the meantime Christine and I will return to my Dad’s ranch and hope that we can catch a glimpse of something that hasn’t quite vanished. If I can only keep quiet.

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