Bird show draws interest in rare California condor - East Valley Tribune: Travel

Bird show draws interest in rare California condor

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Posted: Monday, June 13, 2011 6:00 am

TUSAYAN, Ariz. (AP) - The sarus crane gracefully walks on to the stage with its long legs that trail in flight. The African great white pelican waddles to eat fish from a mock river. A brown-necked raven snatches a dollar bill from a woman in the audience and stuffs it in a donation box.

The birds that appear in this live show are part entertainment and part education, doing tricks and helping visitors traveling to or from the Grand Canyon spot others like them. They're also drawing attention to the plight of one of North America's most endangered birds - the California condor.

The money that Bart, the raven, grabs from the woman's hand goes to the Peregrine Fund, which releases captive-bred condors into the Arizona wilderness. Along with state and federal agencies, the group has helped recover the condors from the brink of extinction.

"All of our work is for naught, unless the public is aware of the condors' comeback in the wild," said Chris Parish, condor reintroduction project director for the Peregrine Fund. "This effort plays an integral role in conservation."

The show, called the Grand Canyon Condor Encounter, is offered daily through Sept. 18 at the National Geographic Visitor Center in Tusayan, near the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and just a short drive from the park entrance.

While visitors to the show won't see a California condor - its status prevents private ownership - its closest relative, an Andean condor named Queen Victoria, stands in.

Both condors are rare, but the Andean condor is in better shape. Biologists estimate that there are a few thousand Andean condors in the wild, while the total population of California condors is around 390. The birds were nearly extinct in the 1980s with a population of 22. Seventy-one of them now fly in and around the Grand Canyon and up to southern Utah.

"The good news is it's less and less rare every year, because they are coming back," Parish said.

The Peregrine Fund, one of four groups that breed, release and monitor the California condors, raises about $800,000 a year. The Arizona Game and Fish Department educates the public on the biggest threat to the condors - lead ammunition.

At the live bird show, the 16-year-old Andean condor hops from tree stump to tree stump in an outdoor venue at the visitor center, showcasing her 9 1/2-foot wing span. She's about the size of a California condor, though most people see those birds from a distance.

"It was a perfect tie to what goes on here with the recovery for the California condor," said Brent Kok, the visitor center's director. "Lots of people come up here to see one. Unless you're an avid bird watcher, you probably wouldn't know the difference."

Joe Krathwohl leads the show. Best known as the "Birdman" of Las Vegas, he has nearly 30 years in training birds that began as a teenager when he bought a small bird at a pet store. About a dozen of his 1,000 birds traveled with him for the show, which runs through mid-September.

Krathwohl first heard about the California condors in the early 1990s. A wildlife educator in upstate New York had two Andean condors and offered one to Krathwohl, who eventually bought it and now has a handful of the birds under an endangered species permit.

He explains how to spot birds that fly in the Grand Canyon based on his exotic stunt doubles, which include a Barbary falcon, a red-tailed hawk and a steppe eagle.

"Except for the color, they're seeing the same birds," Krathwohl said. "What I do is point out characteristics that are family specific."

Falcons, for example, are best known for their speed - up to 200 mph as they dive toward prey - and have a hint of oil in their tears to keep their eyes moist in high wind. They tend to fly in wide circles, while hawks repeat a pattern of five flaps and then a glide, and eagles flap their wings a few times and immediately soar.

Hawks also have keen eyesight and stay airborne for hours but are the laziest of raptors when it comes to hunting, Krathwohl tells the audience.

Ravens, which have called the Grand Canyon home before humans discovered the massive gorge, are smart, he said. And like the other birds in the show, they enjoy showing off.

 

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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