Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, Ariz. » Freedom takes some getting used to. Or at least it did for four California condors hatched and raised in captivity and set loose in the wild Saturday in an event that drew 200 spectators.
The endangered birds were set free from a chain-link release pen at the edge of a sandstone escarpment just south of the Utah border in Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona.
Once the gate of the pen was opened, the two 2-year-old and two 3-year-old birds looked out on the world wary of launching into the wild blue yonder, even as they were taunted by ravens and encouraged by other condors outside the pen.
"Sometimes they fly right out and sometimes it takes days for them to leave the pen," said Eddie Feltes, the project manager for the site and a biologist with the Peregrine Fund.
The private nonprofit group has been working since the 1990s to establish populations of the rare bird that feasts only on carrion in their traditional habitats of California, Mexico and Arizona. The birds also are becoming a familiar sight in skies over southern Utah.
On Saturday, about 30 condors converged on the release site to tear apart several cow carcasses the Peregrine Fund had placed around there.
Feltes said the carcasses are placed on rock outcrops regularly to ensure a food supply for the birds, but also to teach the newly released birds how to eat in the wild.
He said humans stepped in to save the condor when their numbers became perilously low.
In a 1982 census, Feltes said the wild population had dwindled to just 22 birds, so five years later all the birds were captured and put in breeding programs in Idaho, Oregon and California.
The last bird captured, on Easter in 1987, not only helped produce eggs of birds to be released in the wild, but also was released again himself and now soars wild in California.
Before being set free, every bird is fitted with a transmitter that allows biologists to track the creatures, which can live as long as humans.
Today about 160 of the birds soar in the wild, with some of their favorite places being Grand Canyon National Park, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument and Zion National Park in Utah.
Feltes said the condors are the largest land bird in North America, weighing up to 25 pounds, and can soar on air currents for hours without having to flap their wings, which can reach spans of about 9½ feet.
"They're just like a hang glider," Feltes said.
Usually mating for life, a pair of condors produces only one egg every other year, usually in a cave or ledge on a cliff, which contributes to their rare status.
A chance to see the magnificent birds Saturday was enough to draw Jackie Coleman from Salt Lake City to the spectator site located one mile from the release site and where the Peregrine Fund had set up spotting scopes and built a fire against a chilly wind.
She said she loves birds and often attends sightings in Utah sponsored by the Audobon Society.
"I just love nature and hiking," Coleman said. "I'd rather look at a rock than a painting in a museum."