Freedom and Californian Condors

CondorThe sweet sensation of freedom is both a strange and wonderful thing. All at once it is exhilarating, liberating and motivating. Sometimes we don’t realise the ties that have bound us in place for so long. Sometimes we don’t realise that we may be capable of facilitating our own release. Nothing can prepare us for the lightness of spirit that comes after a crushing weight has been lifted from our shoulders.

Freedom can come in many forms, but always results in the same outcome. The gift of freedom provides us with the opportunity to escape from some sort of involuntary or unintended imprisonment. Our form of capture may be physical, mental, financial, lifestyle based or the result of a personal relationship. The detail of why we are imprisoned is not so important. Of much greater importance is the feeling that comes when the lock is opened and you walk out into the blinding sunshine and step out onto the green, green grass with a strong sense of relief. Has the sun ever felt so warm? Has has the grass ever felt so soft? I think not.

All animals, including humans were never meant to be held in captivity. Being a prisoner to something, someone, or someplace means that we are indebted in some way, that we have signed over some part of our personal power to another party. We are shackled indefinitely until we find the strength, the motivation or the key to our escape. Only then is our life our own.

As humans we are bombarded by those who are very interested in subjecting us to their control. With laws and policies the government pressures us, with temptations to borrow and invest the banks try to pin us down, with the need for money and the promise of a career our jobs lock us in, with responsibilities and loyalties our families can weigh heavily on us. We must focus on that day when we can walk softly and lightly on our feet once more.

Recently I watched a short documentary on the California Condor Recovery Program which aims to restore the critically endangered California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) to a naturally viable species. While it is believed that at one time thousands of these magnificent birds existed, since the late 1800s the species has been in significant decline and before the breeding season in 1983, only 22 birds remained.

Established in 1983, the Recovery Program has studied the reasons for the species decline and helped to bring the California Condor back from the brink of extinction. Condors were thought to have thrived during the Pleistocene with the abundance of mega fauna carcasses for the scavenging Condors to feed on. However the arrival of humans meant that the number of carcasses available to Condors significantly declined, forcing the birds to instead feed on seals and sea lions.

In the early 1800s, human hunting of seals and sea lionsCondor against blue sky pushed the populations of marine mammals to the brink of extinction and therefore left little for the Condors to eat. Now one of the greatest hazards faced by Condors is that the main food they have to feed on – carcasses shot by hunters, are killed with lead bullets. In 1984 three out of four birds that were found dead, died of lead poisoning.

With the last remaining Condors facing certain extinction, it was time to take action. So in 1987, a desperate decision was made to trap the last remaining wild condors and take them all into captivity. With their future dependent on their ability to breed in captivity, it is fortunate that the breeding program has been such a great success. The Condor population has grown to almost 300 birds, with 128 having been released back into the wild. Given that lead is still in the environment, and that marine mammals can carry high level of DDT, there is still plenty to threaten the future population growth of Condors in the wild.

This documentary focussed on the release of Condor #79 from a life of captivity into this dangerous and highly unpredictable world. As I watched Condor #79 stand at the open door of her cage I couldn’t help but think that the way I feel today is how I imagine she must have felt just before she took flight for the very first time.

Freedom is a wonderful feeling and a basic right of all, however there can be a sense of loss that follows this revelation of a clear horizon. There is comfort that comes from accepting what you’ve always known, in knowing that there are no surprises coming your way. But then you find yourself free and suddenly the future is unwritten. There is a moment of caution, and perhaps even a feeling of terror. What do I do now? What will I come to know in this new world?

While I wait for exhilaration to overtake the fear, I take strength from Condor #79 and her flight to freedom. Not once did she look back over her shoulder towards her place of captivity. Instead she looked forward across the mountains, as she sailed far above the green, green grass.


  1. John

    Truly a magnificent bird…

    I find that some of my greatest moments of freedom reveal themselves behind what, to casual outside observers, appear to be prison walls.

    Often, we find ourselves giving up one level of freedom for the love of something rooted in a far deeper, yet far less tangible kind of freedom.

    At this point, I am not at all sure what my horizon looks like, but I appreciate being able to share a little of yours.

  2. jan

    I’ve been following and contributing to the efforts to save this magnificent bird since I saw my first one in the late 80’s. I’m so gratified that humans have been able to save a creature who is such an inspiration.

  3. The Artist

    You have presented the essence of freedom in such a beautiful way, thank you.

  4. Tracey

    Hi John – The story of the Condor really inspired me and as you can see I was able to take much from the story of Condor #79 and apply it to how I see my own life. I’m not too sure at all where the road ahead will take me, but I do sense that the horizon is very much a clean slate.

    I hope your own path reveals itself to you soon…or perhaps it is in the lack of revelation that a way ahead is found.

  5. Tracey

    Hi Jan – It does not surprise me at all that you have assisted with efforts to return this species back from the brink of extinction. You strike me as a like-minded custodian of the earth and its many inhabitants.

    They are such amazing birds, I’m so glad that I have been able to learn a little of their history.

  6. Tracey

    Hi The Artist – Thank you for your very kind words. Much like the beauty to be found in your paintings, inspiration can be found in some many places.

    I would never have expected to feel such an affinity for a species of bird found on the other side of the world. I strongly believe that the sensation of freedom is something that all animals can understand and appreciate.

  7. The Artist

    Have linked you on my new domain

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