For the Birds Radio Program: El Condor Pasa

Original Air Date: Nov. 5, 1986

To celebrate Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s birthdays, Laura talks about the passing of the California Condor.

Duration: 2′59″


(Recording of El Condor Pasa)

This song is “El Condor Pasa,” sung by Simon and Garfunkel. Today is both Paul Simon’s and Art Garfunkel’s birthdays, an appropriate day to commemorate the passing of the California Condor.

The extinction of an entire living species is the saddest thing in the world–perhaps in the universe. In 1914 we lost the last of what was once the most abundant bird species in North America–the Passenger Pigeon. This year we have lost the largest of all North American birds–the California Condor–to the wild. At the year’s beginning, there were still seven flying free in the San Joaquin Valley in California, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, under heavy pressure from landowners and eager developers in the Los Angeles area, decided to take the last birds into captivity. No condor has ever bred in captivity–and only one egg removed from a wild condor’s nest has ever been hatched, so the species is now most assuredly doomed.

In the 1940’s it was estimated that 60 condors were alive. By 1964, only about 40 individuals remained. Last year there were about ten. What caused this dramatic decline?

Although some ornithologists maintain that the condor was a dying species long before the white man settled North America, many others disagree. Wanton shooting is definitely the main cause of the decline. The condor has a wingspread of about nine feet and weighs twenty pounds–until this summer it soared lazily on updrafts and thermal air currents in its mountain home, making an attractive target for barbaric outdoorsmen.

The rest of its decline can be attributed to poisoning. This bird is–or was–strictly a scavenger, surviving mainly on the carcasses of deer, sheep, and cattle. Ranchers often leave poisoned carcasses on rangeland in the West to bait and kill wolves, coyotes, and Golden Eagles. But poison doesn’t discriminate between sheep killers and innocent scavengers. Ian McMillan, an ornithologist who studied the condor, wrote:

“Popular misinformation has represented the condor as a lingering, doomed relic of the geologic past, unable to cope with human civilization. The facts contradict this proposition. It is barbarism, not civilization, that threatens the condor.”

I am sad and angry that I’ll never see a wild condor–and that my children will never see one, either. The world is diminished by this magnificent bird’s passing.

That was Simon and Garfunkel, this is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”