California Condors are frequently seen in the Tehachapi Mountains, but their presence lately has gotten Tehachapi mentioned in national news stories after a local resident's daughter mentioned them on Twitter and the story went viral.
Cinda Mickols had reportedly been out of town and when she returned home on May 3, she discovered 15 to 20 California Condors on her deck, having done some damage and left lots of their white poop. Her daughter, Seana Quintero of San Francisco, made a Twitter post about the incident and it attracted national media reporting.
The story got lots of attention, though not all the details were accurate — many outlets said it occurred "in the City of Tehachapi," which of course it did not. Condors are frequently seen in Stallion Springs, Bear Valley Springs, near Water Canyon, etc., but I have yet to hear of a single Condor landing in the city of Tehachapi.
Some media reports also suggested that it was somehow uncommon for Condors to congregate, maybe because they are so rare, but this is also inaccurate — local residents usually see groups of Condors ranging from four or five to as many as 20 or more. It is actually much less common to see a lone California Condor than it is to see a group of them.
When a flock of Condors descended on my friends Chris and Kerri Esten's home off Highline Road in 2018 to relax and bathe after feeding on an elk carcass, Kerri counted at least 38 of the giant birds. That mob of Condors scratched the Estens' new car, tried to eat the windshield wipers (an odd but familiar Condor trait), picked at the gasket to the car's sunroof and broke the watering bucket.
As many Tehachapi locals with first-hand experience with California Condors can attest, they are often inadvertent vandals. They have trashed the vinyl on many a hot tub cover in California, using their pruning shears-like bills.
The formidable scissoring abilities of their beaks is one of the Condors' ecological niche talents: Condors are able to cut through the tough hide of animal carcasses that smaller scavengers like Common Ravens, Turkey Vultures or even Golden Eagles have trouble accessing.
The same dynamic takes place in Africa, where the largest carrion eaters, the Lappet-faced Vultures, whose nine-foot wingspan makes them similar in size to California Condors, are able to shear open the tough hides of dead elephants, rhinos, giraffes, hippos and other creatures which then makes the carcasses accessible to the smaller scavengers.
Thousands of years ago, California Condors could feed on Ice Age megafauna like mammoths and mastodons, as well as camels, ground sloths and the abundant American bison. When those creatures disappeared, Condors switched to feeding largely on dead sea mammals, like whales, sea lions, elephant seals, etc.
When human whaling and sealing crews made that food source scarce, California Condors had to switch yet again, this time to cattle raised in large numbers by Spanish Missions and other early ranchers.
Now Condors feed primarily on California Mule Deer and elk that have died naturally, as well as on calf carcasses left out from them by biologists with the California Condor recovery program.
When they visit homes in the outlying Tehachapi areas, they do so usually to bathe, relax and preen after feeding. They are the largest, as well as among the rarest, birds in North America, and they are also intelligent and very curious.
You know how schoolteachers taking little kids to a museum or some other outing remind their students that "You look with your eyes, not with your hands"? Well, Condors tend to look with their eyes AND their bills. Last week I watched a Condor outside a house in Stallion Springs as it managed to untie an overhand knot in a small cotton rope. Not that it had any particular reason to untie the knot, it was just a young (7-year-old) Condor entertaining itself.
If you see California Condors and can make out their wing tag numbers, you can usually go to condorspotter.com and figure out exactly which bird it is. If you tap the color first, then the number, you can usually see whether the bird is male or female and where it hatched.
I and other Tehachapi residents (including Ms. Mickols) are delighted that we still have California Condors, despite the mischief that they sometimes cause. I can recall when the last wild California Condor, AC-9, was captured on Tejon Ranch property on Easter Sunday, 1987, to become part of the desperate captive breeding program to try to save Condors from extinction. There were only 27 of these magnificent birds in existence at that time, and it is very gratifying to know that there are now more than 500 of them on Earth, more than half of them flying free in the wild.
Have a good week.
Jon Hammond has written for Tehachapi News for more than 30 years. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.