Earth Day flying lesson

Condor: An Andean bird helps a Baltimore school's observance.

April 24, 2004|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Veedor the Andean condor spread his wings to their full 9 1/2 -foot span yesterday and took to the air over North Baltimore.

True, he soared no higher than 6 or 8 feet above the soccer field at the Friends School on North Charles Street. It was hot, after all, much hotter than the cool Andean crags where his kind evolved millions of years ago.

But watching Veedor sweep across the field and land at their feet was thrilling enough for almost 1,000 cheering Friends students and faculty. Veedor was the highlight of the school's observance of Earth Day.

"Awesome!" said freshman Laura Resnick, 15, of Baltimore.

Her classmate Molly Moses, 14, called it "a real honor to see an animal you wouldn't see in Maryland."

Veedor's handler, John McNeely, said Veedor is the only tame, free-flying condor in the world and is an ambassador for his species. Fewer than 1,000 of the South American scavengers - harried by hunters, feather and egg collectors, and lead poisoning - are thought to remain in the wild.

Andrea Hicks, 47, who teaches environmental science at Friends and arranged Veedor's visit, said that several years ago she was moved by her first sight of one of the world's largest flying birds. "I've never been the same; he's just so majestic. And I knew it was something I wanted to share with the community here," she said.

Veedor is a Maryland native, born 17 years ago at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel as part of the federal government's endangered species breeding program. Scientists were using the less critically endangered Andean condor to develop breeding and release techniques that might help rescue California condors, which were nearly extinct.

But when Reagan-era budget cuts affected the center, McNeely said, federal wildlife officials were forced to turn over their four condors to private keepers. They had become accustomed to humans and could not be released to the wild.

McNeely - an environmental educator, videographer and former ranger at the Assateague Island National Seashore - took Veedor. "They didn't attach any strings," McNeely said. "But they knew I would probably try to do something innovative with him."

At first, he tried to discourage the 42-inch-tall bird's attachment to people. But it didn't work. "He would still bow down, `row' his wings and beg for food, just like a baby bird," he said. "There was no way he could go back into the wild."

McNeely decided to encourage Veedor's growing affection for him. He trained the bird to fly free and return. And he exploits that affection in his travels by demonstrating the "pecking order" that has developed. He is at the top, with Veedor and McNeely's human assistants constantly vying for second place.

Yesterday McNeely showed the students how Veedor conceded ownership of a prized cardboard box to McNeely. But when handler Diane DeNardo grabbed the box, Veedor launched a spirited tug of war over the prize.

McNeely and Veedor live in the western Connecticut town of Sharon. The 28-pound bird's meals consist of such condor delicacies as chickens, salmon heads, wild turkey and deer - a pound at a time.

Veedor is in the prime of condor life. In the wild, they typically live 25 to 30 years, while in captivity they can live beyond 50.

Bird and keepers travel several days a week in a large, cage-equipped van to deliver environmental education talks, mostly in the spring and fall, when the weather is favorable. They've clocked something like 400,000 miles together and worn out three vans.

Veedor's flights are always crowd-pleasers, although they carry risks. McNeely stepped in and grabbed Veedor by the beak several times yesterday when the big bird appeared to be eyeing perches high on the nearby Cathedral of Mary Our Queen.

During an exercise flight in Connecticut a year ago, he said, Veedor "caught a thermal" and soared off, followed a ridge line and sailed out of sight - the only condor on the wing anywhere east of Arizona.

"I called the police and radio stations, saying there was a condor on the loose," he said. "I said he was friendly but not to approach him. Just call my cell phone."

After 90 minutes, Veedor sailed back and landed where his adventure began, at McNeely's feet. "But it was a pretty harrowing hour and a half," he said.

Their joint educational mission, he said, is "to dispel all the myths about condors. People think condors are stupid, ugly, dirty, primitive birds."

The letters he gets from students assure him that they are getting the message. Better still, "it often gets people interested in other endangered species. ... Even though this is a very interesting bird, there are hundreds of other species that really deserve our care also."

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