Commentary

Condors Fly Freely in Utah and in the Andes of Peru

This weekend took me to southern Utah, with its ancient rock formations with names such as “the Great White Throne” and “the Three Patriarchs” and “Angels Landing”.    These peaks soar thousands of feet above the Virgin River, which continues to carve a spectacular canyon through the sediment laid down years ago by large sand dunes.

Atop Angels Landing, a condor couple has started their family.  The California Condors, which are coming back from a near extinction event, were encouraged to nest in Zions lofty peaks where they enjoy lazily soaring amid the thermals.  Condors mate for life, and may live to be 75 years old.  They were sharing the air with Peregrine falcons, each sailing the skies with carefully trimmed wings, tuning their feathers to the rising air currents that kept them aloft.

Watching them sail, dark against the blue sky, I wondered how they had dwindled to a mere 22 birds in the 1980s.  According to defenders.org, a website devoted to helping people and animals coexist, the birds are threatened by many human activities.  Power lines pose a problem “due to their massive wingspan (nearly 10 feet) condors can close the circuit of high voltage power lines, electrocuting themselves”.  Hunters have also been a problem, mostly indirectly.  Condors consume carrion, and often ingest the lead shot from animals that have been left by hunters.  “Lead poisoning from spent ammunition is the number one cause of death among endangered condors.”   The chicks are endangered by ‘micro-trash’ such as pennies or glass that the parent birds may pick up and feed their young.

Andean Condor
Andean Condor

The Condors reminded me of the Andean Condors in Peru.  I wondered how their numbers were in comparison and how they interacted with humans.

The Condor is a highly respected and honored bird in Peru. It is the largest bird, factoring in wingspan and weight, that can fly. It soars over the valleys from the mountain tops. The male is typically bigger than the female and has “fluffier” neck which is used to attract females.

Condors usually eat dead animals, both domesticated and wild, which is why they are sometimes perceived to have killed livestock. Because farmers find the condor feasting on a dead cow, they will shoot the condor, thinking that the condor killed the animal.

Condors are not natural born killers. They are however used in an unusual type of bullfight in Andahuaylas región of Peru. Mollie Bloudoff- Indelicato reported to NPR, The Peruvian Blood Festival or Yawar festival is held in July. Many claim that it is ‘traditional’ but the festival was popularized by the 1941 book “Yawar” subtitled Fiesta de Sangre (Festival of Blood) by José María Arguedas, an author and anthropologist.

Although the condor is barely mentioned in the book, the cover often carries a picture of the bird. Guardian reporter, Jonathan Watts claims “communities that had never used a condor in their Yawar festivals now do so with increasing frequency.” He also states that this may be due to the fact that “Peru is getting richer.” People travel to the city to work and bring their money home to sponsor festivals. To sponsor a Yawar festival is a great “status symbol”.

It is a “striking spectacle, with a giant condor strapped to the back of an enraged bull”, according to Mollie, who goes on to say “it is a symbolic re-enactment of (Peruvian) liberation from Spanish rule.” If the condor appears to win, it is considered a good omen for the year.
The origin of the fiestas are unknown. It is impossible that the fiesta took place before Pizarro introduced bullfighting to South America There are laws against the capture of wild birds for the Yawar festival, however, they are widely disregarded.

With only a few hundred birds remaining in Peru, it is hoped that the birds and will continue to fly free over fields of Cusco.

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