Several geoblogosphere associates have already chipped into today's big event, an appreciation of vultures. We do need to appreciate the scavengers and cleaners of our world (kind of like appreciating Dirty Jobs), but my appreciation goes a little deeper, more like admiration. My favorite member of the vulture family is a real survivor, despite our worst abuses, and great changes in their world: the California Condor.
California Condors are one of the few direct links we have to a world that disappeared 11,000 years ago. At that time, California and the American West played host to a diverse and fascinating megafauna that included mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths, giant elk, bison, horses, camels, short-faced bears (bigger than grizzlies), and a frightening array of predators, including dire wolves, American lions, and saber-tooth cats. All gone now, lost to an extinction event that is still not understood: it could have been predation by humans, climate change, even an unfortunately-aimed asteroid impact. The condor, one of the largest of birds, was the clean-up crew when the giant predators of the giant grazers were done eating. When the megafauna disappeared, the condors went into a decline, and the largest species of condors went extinct. Their near-extinction was not necessarily the fault of humans; there may have been only 300 or so when the Spaniards first explored California. Still, we in the modern era didn't help matters. We shot them, or poisoned them with lead buckshot to the point that there were only about two dozen left in the 1970's.
Wildlife biologists stepped in at that point and captured the last remaining wild birds, and began a program of captive breeding. It has been a reasonable success, with 322 birds alive today. 172 of them have been released into the wild, with populations in Grand Canyon (top picture), the Zion Park region, the Coast Ranges of California (second photo), and part of northern Mexico.
Take a moment to thank the scavengers of our world!