Meet the Science Team: Holly Copeland, falling in love with condors

I wasn’t expecting to see a condor.

My girlfriends and I were hiking the Angel’s Landing Trail in Zion National Park on a brisk November morning several years ago. As we walked along the spine of the trail out to the airy point overlooking the valley, one friend spotted a large black bird soaring along the edge of the 1000’ cliff. We first thought it was a vulture, but as it came closer, it was clear from the massive wingspan (condor wingspans can reach 9 ½ feet) that it was a condor.

Just then, a second condor emerged into view. The pair soared directly over us–close enough for us to see the GPS collars and read their tags. We literally lay down on the sandstone and watched as these ancient creatures circled the cliffs around us.

I fell in love.

holly and condor

Why would I find myself caring so much about this bald-headed, gawky looking creature? Perhaps because when I learned the story of how condors–whose relatives go back to the Pleistocene and were once widespread across the Americas–were brought back from the edge of extinction, seeing them in Zion felt miraculous.

Last Christmas my husband and I organized a family trip to Zion. We hiked the Angel’s Landing trail, scanning for condors the whole way. We didn’t see any that day, but just the possibility of seeing them meant so much to our family and I realized that were it not for the efforts of so many, my girls wouldn’t have a chance to see them. I am immensely grateful to all involved in bringing them back.

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Recently, when a scientist friend and mentor explained that his project needed a spatial ecologist to analyze trend data from GPS collars for condor populations in California and invited me to join the team, I jumped at the chance. I’m now involved analyzing spatial patterns and trends in condor data and helping to understand their movements, social, and foraging behavior.

Back in my home state of Wyoming, scientists have been monitoring lead levels in ravens and eagles in the Jackson Hole area, and found troubling data on lead poisoning in eagle populations (, but also successful reductions in lead levels from use of non-lead ammunition. Lead poisoning goes well beyond California condors and has significance for wildlife populations everywhere.

Citizen science is a fabulous new bridge between people and their environment. By inviting the public to join in the quest for scientific knowledge, we can create a new community of people engaging in and contributing to science, and in the case of Condor Watch, for condor conservation.

Connecting people to nature for conservation purposes is an idea that goes back to John Muir and the preservation of Yosemite. Now that old idea takes new forms through the power of the internet and through participation and education can help strengthen conservation efforts for many species, including condors.

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