When some couples visit the Grand Canyon, they find the setting so romantic that they hook a padlock onto the fence and toss the key into the abyss below. These so-called “love locks”—and the dramatic gesture of throwing away the key—are meant to symbolize the everlasting nature of their love.
But National Park Service officials say this behavior can harm the endangered California condors that live in northern Arizona and southern Utah. Now, they’re urging visitors to stop this dangerous practice, which they say is also a form of graffiti and littering.
“People think putting a lock on fencing at viewpoints is a great way to show love for another person,” staffers wrote in a post on the Grand Canyon National Park Facebook page. “It’s not.”
Love locks are not unique to the Grand Canyon. Tourists attach them to bridges and other fixtures all over the world—much to the chagrin of local leaders—including in Paris, Venice and Melbourne, to name a few.
But the situation at the Grand Canyon is special, because in addition to welcoming tourists, the area provides habitat for endangered California condors. With wingspans of up to eight feet, they are the largest birds in North America—and the first birds to recover from a former “extinct in the wild” status.
California condors are attracted to shiny things, and as a result, they sometimes eat wrappers and coins—or even padlock keys. But the birds cannot digest metal, so these objects often get stuck in their digestive systems. The birds are “curious animals,” and like small children, they “investigate strange things they come across with their mouths,” per the Facebook post.
To illustrate this point, park officials also shared an X-ray image of a California condor’s crop, a muscular pouch in the neck used to temporarily store food.
“You can see coins lodged in the digestive tract of the bird,” staffers wrote. “This bird had to be operated on to clear the obstructions. If a condor ingests too many objects like this, it could die.”
Ingesting metal is one reason California condors nearly went extinct during the 1980s. As scavengers, the birds feast primarily on roadkill, carrion and other animals’ leftovers. Many of them died from lead poisoning after eating bullet fragments in animal carcasses.
By 1982, just 22 condors remained in the wild. Thanks to concerted conservation efforts over the last 40 years, their numbers have since rebounded to more than 500 individuals, with around 350 living in the wild and another 200 or so in captivity.
But, for the wild birds, lead poisoning from bullet fragments remains a top threat. They also face other issues, including diseases, habitat loss and electrocution, according to the National Park Service.
Microtrash—or small bits of garbage like bottle caps or pieces of plastic—can also harm California condor nestlings. The baby birds are completely dependent on their parents for food for the first six months of their lives, and sometimes the parents mistake trash for edible items. If the babies ingest too much garbage, they can die. California condors are slow to reproduce, so every chick that survives to adulthood is important for strengthening the population overall.
This year, the birds have been dying from the highly contagious avian bird flu. Biologists are in the process of testing vaccines against the disease with a small group of condors and their relatives, black vultures.