The Epic Vulture

Illustration by PJ Fidler

No creature that has ever evolved, not the passenger pigeon, the flightless dodo or even the turgid-blossom pearly mussel, has a history that demonstrates more vividly man’s impact on the Earth than the California condor, the massive, black-bodied, bald-headed bird that spent the Pleistocene Era feasting on dead mastodons and the last decades of the 20th century behind bars in California zoos. Alternately romanticized and reviled, hunted and domesticated, worshipped by Indians and studied by scientists literally to death, the epic vulture, if it could utter more than its trademark hiss, could tell a story of tense cohabitation encompassing most of the pivotal moments of American progress, from the march of the first settlers across the Bering Land Bridge to the expansion of tract-home suburbia to Americans’ slow, uneasy awakening, in the 1970s, to the plight of endangered species. As John Nielsen documents in Condor: To the Brink and Back — The Life and Times of One Giant Bird, humans have been captivated by the bird as long as it’s been around. “You can try to shoo it away, do it harm, and forget it’s even there,” Nielsen writes, but “one day it will stand, spread its giant wings, lean into the wind, and own you.”

Nielsen, who grew up in Piru, 50 miles north of Los Angeles on the edge of the condor’s last sliver of California habitat, writes with the passion of personal investment: He still has the wing tag of condor AC-8, the great “Matriarch” shot dead by a “pig hunter” shortly after her re-release into the wild. But with a thrilling sweep of research and detailed attention to the characters — the hunters, miners, zookeepers and biologists — in his drama, Nielsen balances his emotion about the subject with the weight of authority. He is catholic in his criticism: Native Americans who slaughtered condors for rituals were no less guilty of the vulture’s decline than were Spanish missionaries; scientists obsessed with the condor’s eggs share equal blame with Grizzly Adams and other like-minded sport plunderers of the wild. And unlike other writers who’ve tackled the puzzle of condor captivity, Nielsen does not pick sides: He sympathizes as much with David Brower, the ecologist who believed the birds’ only hope lay in habitat protection, as he does with the rookie biologist and climber Bill Lehman, who accidentally killed a condor chick in the process of weighing it and taking blood for tests. The incident, captured on film and watched by condor experts the world over, once branded Lehman and the team he served on as reckless criminals hell-bent on the boneheaded pursuit of science; Nielsen lets us in on Lehman’s shock and grief: The climb back up from the cave that held the chick’s nest, said Lehman, “seemed like it took six months.”

There have been other great books about condors or endangered species in general — David S. Wilcove’s saga of deforestation, The Condor’s Shadow, comes to mind — that, like Condor, take an arcane subject and make it emotionally accessible to a general audience. But it’s still the rare nature or science writer who delights as much in metaphor and well-crafted storytelling as Nielsen seems to. Historical accounts of condor sightings combine to make Condor less a history of the bird than a history of humanity in the West, of the steady, arrogant creep of settlers who massacred the continent’s large mammals, polluted its rivers and flattened its mountains in search of gold or oil. “The California gold rush,” writes Nielsen, “hit the condor’s world like a meteor from the East. When it did, the mountains crumbled and the rivers died; afterward, squalid human settlements festered like diseases.”

Attitudes toward the condor have improved since then, but it hasn’t meant much. In April 1987, when the last wild-born condor was captured and brought to the zoo, the condor’s habitat had been so ravaged and invaded that only 27 California condors remained on Earth. And while the zoo-bred condor population has thrived, and over a hundred birds have been released back into the wild in California, Arizona and Baja California, little has been done to address the hazards in the vulture’s habitat: Residential and industrial development continues to squeeze in from all sides, and the recovery program has for “fifty years been a kind of scientific bar fight,” laboring, now more than ever, under constant, politicized threats and gag orders (try to get a condor expert to consent to an on-the-record interview, and you’ll see what I mean). Neither oil drilling in the condor’s range nor hunting with lead bullets there has been eliminated, which means that condors will for the time being remain at best an artificially maintained population, bred in zoos for release in the semiwild, where conservationists serve them regular meals of stillborn calves and roadkill.

Nielsen ends on a hopeful note: Biologist Sophie Osborne watches a fledgling plummet from a cliff, “spinning and tumbling in a way that reminded [her] of a maple leaf,” but learn to fly a few hundred feet before it crashes — a metaphor, in a sense, for the entire condor population. But it’s clear that our fabled vulture has not yet hit those last few hundred feet — or quite learned to fly. “It could take a hundred years or more to truly save this species,” writes Nielsen, “and no one thinks salvation is assured.” Without a broader effort to clean up its ancient stomping grounds, the condor may let go of us after all.


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