The California condor Search and Rescue squad

Here in eastern Ontario, it seems that spring has finally sprung!  We at Dispatches from the Field couldn’t be happier: from the first appearance of spring flowers to the arrival of migratory birds and the sudden bursts of frog song, we love this time of year.  Spring is a time of new beginnings – and in honour of that, we’re trying something new for the month of May.

In several previous posts, we’ve talked about the fact that fieldwork often happens in the most unexpected places – from botanical gardens to urban beaches and polluted city harbours.  But just as often, fieldwork can take biologists to the ‘ends of the earth’, and fieldwork in remote and isolated places is a completely unique experience.

During the month of May, Dispatches from the Field will be collaborating with our good friends, the wildlife filmmakers at Wild Lens, to share that unique experience in multiple ways.  Dispatches will feature a great lineup of guest posts from people who have worked in the most amazing and untouched places, from the Aleutian Islands of Alaska to remote stretches of Patagonia, while Wild Lens will be releasing a short film about studying seabirds in the Aleutian Islands, and several podcasts focusing on the experience of remote fieldwork.  So stay tuned for an exciting month, and make sure to check out the Wild Lens blog to learn more about some of the stories we’ll share over the next few weeks.

This week’s post is written by Wild Lens co-founder Matthew Podolsky, who tells us about one of his experiences working with condors in the remote regions of the Grand Canyon.  For more about Matthew and Wild Lens, see his bio at the end of the post.

Mist over the Grand Canyon

Mist over the Grand Canyon

In the Grand Canyon of Arizona, California condor biologists have been aiding park service law enforcement by tracking the movements of condors in areas where people have gone missing. There have been a handful of documented instances of condors feeding on human carcasses in the Grand Canyon, and the folks from the park service recognize the utility of using the condor’s ability to find carcasses in this vast desert canyon system. I am one of several condor biologists to have aided the park service in the recovery of a human body from the Grand Canyon.

In addition to my own account, I was able to share the stories of several fellow condor biologists in my documentary film, Scavenger Hunt.  (Check out the trailer for this film below!)

One of the benefits of working as a field biologist is having the occasional opportunity to live and work in extremely remote locations. The Northern Arizona desert is as close as I’ve gotten to living in isolation – we had a field crew of 10 people and maybe 60 or so folks living in the little highway community of Vermilion Cliffs while I was there. But although very few people live out there in the desert, a whole lot of people come to visit the area.

Vermillion Cliffs, the condor release site

Vermilion Cliffs

The Grand Canyon is close to the Vermilion Cliffs and the condor release site – especially if you’re flying. The best nesting habitat for these birds is found in the Grand Canyon. There are caves found in a particular sandstone layer of the canyon that the birds seem to be attracted to. But how much food could a condor really find down in the canyon? There just aren’t too many large animals down there: in fact the most abundant large animal to be found in many areas of the canyon is the species we belong to – humans!

A radio transmitter attached to a condor feather

A radio transmitter attached to a condor feather

I was working along the South Rim of the canyon, keeping track of a group of birds with binoculars and radio telemetry. (Each and every condor is outfitted with a radio transmitter, and this is what allows biologists to track the birds’ movements.) I got a call from our field manager, who told me that there was a missing person in the canyon and that I should expect a phone call from park service law enforcement.

Sure enough, a few minutes later the call came in. The ranger gave me the location where this man had last been seen, and I told him that I would let him know if I had any condor activity that might indicate that they had found something. This would of course be an indication that their missing person was probably dead, since condors are most interested in dead animals (being strictly scavengers, they feed exclusively on dead animals).

The next day while out on the rim doing telemetry surveys for the condors – which means I was swinging a good size radio antenna around – I was approached by an unusual group of people. They asked me if I was one of the condor biologists; I said yes, and before I could start with my spiel about condor natural history they introduced themselves as the family of someone who was missing down in the canyon.

They had been told by the park ranger that through my work tracking the condors, I was helping them find their loved one. After getting over the shock that a park ranger would have shared this type of information, I got into a long and interesting conversation with the family. They were fascinated by the work I was doing and by the ability of our crew to track the movements of each individual bird.

The situation became tricky, however, when I did start to notice some activity right in the area described to me by the park ranger. Three birds were circling down in the canyon and acting like they had found a carcass. It could have been a bighorn sheep or a burro, but I decided to call up the ranger and let him know what I was seeing – from inside my truck, after parting ways with the family of the missing man.

The next morning I was hiking down into the canyon with the ranger and two other park service employees in search of this missing person, who we were assuming at this point was likely dead. It took several hours to hike down to the area, but once we were down there the condors quickly led us to the body of an older man. The birds had just started to pick at the body – it was gruesome, but I was happy that the condors hadn’t yet started to really dig in.

We took a few steps back from the body to assess the situation, and the park ranger noticed the son of the missing man hiking down a switchback on the trail above us. He took off up the trail to divert him. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to break this news to a family member after just discovering this man’s body.

Airlifting the missing person's remains out of the canyon

Airlifting the missing person’s remains out of the canyon

I was told that I was absolutely not obligated to help with the removal of the body, but I could see that they were going to need an extra hand. We had to roll the body to get it into the body bag and we were situated on a precariously steep talus slope. We were able to get it all wrapped up however (with only a few close calls), and the ranger called in the helicopter to airlift the body.

The next day I was invited to participate in a park service incident assessment meeting – everyone who had been involved in the recovery of the missing man shared what they thought had gone well, and where they thought there could be improvement. I don’t remember what I said – probably something about collaboration between the condor crew and the park service – but all I could think about while listening to everyone’s assessment was how silly it all seemed. Here was an entire room of people talking about what that did right and what they did wrong in the recovery of this missing person – but it was the condors that had found that body!

Later on in the meeting someone actually brought this up in our discussion – how could they justify spending all this money and risking additional lives when they could just rely on the condors to find the people who go missing in the canyon? Of course the condors only develop an interest in missing persons after they have expired, so if your goal is to find someone while they are still living this would pose a bit of a problem. I guess that’s why they haven’t adopted this type of policy as of yet.

Beautiful, huge, and wild: it's not easy finding anything in the Grand Canyon

Beautiful, huge, and wild: it’s not easy finding anything in the Grand Canyon

Months later I received an extraordinarily thoughtful and unexpected thank you card from the family of the man whose body I had helped recover from the canyon. It doesn’t seem strange to me anymore that these people connected with me at that difficult and grief-filled moment. The condors allowed them to take a step back and look at their situation from a broader perspective. Maybe even from the condor’s perspective – an intelligent animal that shows what could be interpreted as respect for its own dead, but sees the body of a human as just another carcass.


Matt Podolsky handles a California condor

Matt Podolsky handles a California condor

Matthew Podolsky helped found Wild Lens in 2011 with the goal of bringing biologists and filmmakers together to produce films that would have an impact on critically important wildlife conservation issues.  Immediately after the inception of Wild Lens, he began full-scale production on his first feature length film, Scavenger Hunt.  Matthew also served as producer and co-director of Bluebird Man; he is a producer on the Eyes on Conservation documentary series and serves as the host of the Eyes on Conservation podcast.  Prior to his work with Wild Lens, Matthew spent four years working as a biologist with the endangered California condor, spending time with the wild population of condors in Arizona and Utah, as well as with the captive breeding program in Boise, Idaho.  Matthew received both a BA in Cinema/Photography and a BS in Environmental Science from Ithaca College.

2 thoughts on “The California condor Search and Rescue squad

  1. Pingback: Oh, the places we’ve gone and the places we’ll go | Dispatches from the Field

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