Book Review

Photo by Dan Linehan

Return of the Condor Lets the Feathers Fly: Bullets and Bureaucrats Remain as the Greatest Threats to Recovery Efforts

by Dan Linehan


In John Moir's Return of the Condor, he tells of the deadly, back-and-forth struggle to save the largest bird in North America from the talons of extinction as adversity sprang from the most surprising directions. From first observation to early study to hands-on monitoring to captive breeding to re-release, the California condor has faced peril at nearly every flap of its giant, 10-foot wings.

But Moir, who saw his first wild condors in the mid 1970's while hiking along the edge of the Los Padres National Forest in Southern California, would be quick to point out that these raptors don't have talons as do others like the golden eagle. Condors have claws that are well suited for walking on the ground.

Only twenty-two California condors remained alive in the early 1980's. And between 1987 and 1992, condors—whose intelligence is comparable to that of primates—completely disappeared from the wilds.

Back in the early 1800's, Lewis and Clark were among the first to record detailed observations of condors, soaring high above the vast, western wilderness. But they also shot and killed subjects during this study. As the decades progressed, "shotgun science" remained the common method for getting a close-up look at these majestic creatures.

Even after the passage of a law banning the killing of condors in 1905, condors still have not managed to dodge the bullet, whether staring directly down the barrel or well after the barrel has had a chance to cool.

A science writer and docent at Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve in Moss Landing, California, Moir's article "Bringing Back the Condor," which won first place for non-fiction at the 2004 East of Eden Writer's Conference in Salinas, California, and was subsequently published in Birding magazine, provided the catalyst for this book.

Based on in-depth interviews of key figures, years of personal experience, and extensive research of condor information archives from Santa Barbara to New York City, Moir's book is both compelling and thorough without requiring the reader to be a bird expert.

Moir, a resident of Santa Cruz, California, poses these questions in his book: "Could these condors be successfully bred in captivity? Why was the bird in such desperate trouble and what was causing its decline?" To answer these questions, he details the plights of AC9 (Adult Condor 9), the last condor to be plucked from the wild; AC8, the matriarch of the lone survivors; Sisquoc, the first condor chick born in captivity; and many others.

In 1978, two independent studies revealed an alarming rate of decline in the population, and Moir writes, "Something had to change—and quickly—or the only condors left would be museum specimens."

But the biggest resistance came from one of their own. Carl Koford, a graduate student at UC Berkeley at the time, completed the first comprehensive study of the California condor between the 1939 and 1946. This almost spelled the birds' doom. In an effort to protect the condor, he deviated from his own actions and observations, asserting that California condors were extremely sensitive animals where the slightest intrusion could have fatal consequences.
For decades, he and his followers were fierce opponents of any intervention. To them, disturbing a nest site, tagging, radio tracking—let alone captive breeding—was a certain death sentence for the species. And as the numbers spiral downward, some believed it was better for the condors to become extinct rather than face the indignity of living in a cage.

As condors continued to die, analysis showed lead poisoning was the culprit. Something had to done fast. Inaction was killing the California condor. In 1980, Noel Snyder, of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and his team began the hands-on recovery.

Miscalculations occurred on both sides. Opponents called recovery efforts the "condor disposal program" after a fire was ignited by a trap and a chick died from the stress while being studied at its nest. "In all the years of the condor recovery effort, this was the only chick that ever died from being handled. It could not have come at a worse time," Moir writes.

The recovery effort was derailed until 1983 when the captive breeding was finally approved, the first egg recovered from a nest, and the first chick hatched in captivity. And as healthy chicks continued to hatch the opposition to the recovery began to fade.

But as the birds in captivity were thriving, those in wild were dying of lead poison. "Just a few months earlier the program had been going so well that they were ready to release captive birds," writes Moir. "Now it seemed madness to put birds into such a deadly environment."

Photo by Dan Linehan

In 1985, eight pieces of lead were found inside the body of AC3—seven pellets from being hit by a shotgun blast and one bullet fragment found in her digestive track. It was the bullet fragment AC3 swallowed that killed her.

Moir quoted Bill Toone, a biologist from the San Diego Zoo, as saying, "We put a lot of heart into that bird. What happed to AC3 was bullshit. Lead didn't kill her, she died from politics."

Captive-bred condors are returned to the wild from several release sites, including Pinnacles National Monument, Central California, and Vermilion Cliff National Monument, near the Grand Canyon.

Currently, condors are tested for lead in their blood. And many still have to be recaptured and hospitalized because of life threatening levels. In fact, two condors each had to be treated for lead poisoning six separate times.

Photo by Dan Linehan

Condors also face challenges as developers set their sights on condor habitat. "Tempers ran high, with some claiming that 'forty dirty black condors' were holding up progress. One frustrated elected official mused that it was a terrible temptation to go out and simply shoot the birds," Moir writes.

Other officials during the recovery efforts even wondered if the condor was even worth the expense of trying to save.

The condor now ranges from Central California down to Baja, Mexico, across to Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona and Zion National Park in Utah.

Although the numbers are on the rise, more than 125 fly free, protection for these birds has declined thanks to the Bush administration's weakening of the Endangered Species Act. Moir points out that as billions and billions of dollars continue to be spent on the war on Iraq, resources continue to be siphoned off from non-essential programs.

Return of the Condor is an eye-opening account of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles and sacrifices that a team of dedicated people have faced and continue to face in order to save the majestic California condor. Moir interweaves both heartwarming and hearth-wrenching events while maintaining the global perspective that condors are not the only species in danger. This is an important book for anyone interested in the challenges to the environment and the animals we coexist with. Although the condors were saved from extinction, the story is one of caution because condors are still taking casualties.

Return of the Condor by John Moir, The Lyons Press, 272 pages, 32 pages of color photos, $24.95, was released October 2006. Visit http://www.returnofthecondor.com for more information.