Condor: To the Brink and Back--The Life and Times of One Giant Bird


The California condor has been described as a bird
"with one wing in the grave."

Flying on wings nearly ten feet wide from tip to tip, these birds thrived on the carcasses of animals like woolly mammoths. Then, as humans began dramatically reshaping North America, the continent's largest flying land bird started disappearing. By the beginning of the twentieth century, extinction seemed inevitable.

But small ...

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2006 Hardcover First Edition New in New jacket Book. 5 3/4 By 8 1/2" First Printing, GIFT QUALITY Saving them required capture and captivity in zoos to increase their numbers. ... It Worked! ! Read more Show Less

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2006 Hardcover New The giant bird with one wing in the grave seems to be recovering from its near extinction. This is the story of the fight for its survival, the disappearing ... wildlands it needs, and the behind-the-scenes dramas that have shaped the environmental movement. Read more Show Less

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The California condor has been described as a bird
"with one wing in the grave."

Flying on wings nearly ten feet wide from tip to tip, these birds thrived on the carcasses of animals like woolly mammoths. Then, as humans began dramatically reshaping North America, the continent's largest flying land bird started disappearing. By the beginning of the twentieth century, extinction seemed inevitable.

But small groups of passionate individuals refused to allow the condor to fade away, even as they fought over how and why the bird was to be saved. Scientists, farmers, developers, bird lovers, and government bureaucrats argued bitterly and often, in the process injuring one another and the species they were trying to save. In the late 1980s, the federal government made a wrenching decision — the last remaining wild condors would be caught and taken to a pair of zoos, where they would be encouraged to breed with other captive condors.

Livid critics called the plan a recipe for extinction. After the zoo-based populations soared, the condors were released in the mountains of south-central California, and then into the Grand Canyon, Big Sur, and Baja California. Today the giant birds are nowhere near extinct.

The giant bird with "one wing in the grave" appears to be recovering, even as the wildlands it needs keep disappearing. But the story of this bird is more than the story of a vulture with a giant wingspan — it is also the story of a wild and giant state that has become crowded and small, and of the behind-the-scenes dramas that have shaped the environmental movement. As told by John Nielsen, an environmental journalist and a native Californian, this is a fascinating tale of survival.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
During the Pleistocene era, the soaring California condor ruled the western skies, gorging itself on the carcasses of mastodons, giant sloths, primitive horses, and other megafauna of the time. But for the past 10,000 years, this airborne scavenger has been in decline, its population falling precipitously. In 1890, more than 600 condors still flew wild; by 1982, the number had plummeted to 22, including only a single breeding pair. The California Condor Recovery Program, established in 1975 by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, rescued this beautiful bird from the brink of extinction. NPR environment correspondent John Nielsen tells the story of a nature initiative that worked.
National Audubon Society
National Audubon Society Editor’s Choice
Publishers Weekly
NPR's environment correspondent, Nielsen, writes, "The condor is a rat with ten-foot wings," adding a half-page later that no matter how you try to get rid of it, "one day it will stand, spread its giant wings, lean into the wind, and own you." The awesome, ancient creature has been teased back from the brink of extinction since the 1970s, as Nielsen describes, by a controversial captive breeding program that has nurtured the population from around 20 to over 200. Via an unfortunately stuttering time line, Nielsen focuses on the process and players in the $20-million California Condor Recovery program, describing the infighting in the scientific and environmental communities, at war about whether a "hands on" or a "hands off" approach will work best. Provocative questions environmentalists raise include whether the very nature of the bird is sacrificed by captivity. Nielsen gives these concerns some time, but is most entranced by the hazards and pleasures of working with these birds; he's at his best describing scientists in the field and the birds themselves. One is left with the fledgling hope that the process of trial and error will indeed work out for the condors. 16 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. Agent, James Al Levine. (Feb. 10) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The story of efforts to save the gigantic California condor from extinction is so dramatic that it justifies a new book every few years, especially since this is still an ongoing process. This thoughtful history by the environmental correspondent for National Public Radio does a fine job of describing the strong personalities and bitter conflicts among the researchers, agencies, and organizations concerned with saving condors from extinction. One camp wanted to leave the condors alone, while others maintained that capture and captive breeding was the only way to save them. Nielsen notes that condor researchers also had to endure grueling field work and the hostility of local landowners. While Noel and Helen Snyder's excellent The California Condor also offers a detailed and thorough review of the biology, research, and politics concerned with these great birds, Nielsen's account is more an investigative report written in the nature of a long, very readable essay. A dramatic conservation tale; recommended for academic and larger public library natural history collections.-Henry T. Armistead, Free Lib. of Philadelphia Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Barely 15 years ago, the California condor was nearly extinct. NPR environmental correspondent Nielsen tells the story of its recovery-such as it is. During his 1960s youth in what was once prime condor country, the author never saw a single one of the birds. The condor was desperately rare; as far back as 1900, one expert estimated that only 12 were alive. Condors were remnants of an era before humans settled North America, when the carcasses of giant beasts provided bountiful meals. Nielsen alternates California history with the story of the condor protection and recovery movement, showing how development put pressure on the birds' environment and how bird-lovers, scientists, farmers, developers and bureaucrats battled to decide the fate of the condor population. He describes legendary condor expert Carl Koford, who logged the first detailed observations of the birds from 1939 to 1946. He chronicles the swing of expert opinion from the belief that only complete freedom from human contact could save the species to the decision to capture all 27 living condors and breed them in zoos. The last free-born condor, a canny bird named Igor, was caged in 1987. To the scientists' relief, the birds bred in captivity; the chicks were raised by puppets designed to imitate their parents' behavior. Five years after Igor was captured, a pair of his offspring were set free. Since then, more than 100 birds, including Igor himself, have been released into the wilds of California. Nielsen combines good storytelling with a knack for detail in his coverage of the condor recovery program's triumphs and setbacks, while showing just how fraught the process has been. Well told story with an ambivalent endingreminding us that few of the factors leading to the condor's near-extinction have changed.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060088620
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 2/7/2006
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

An environment correspondent for National Public Radio, John Nielsen specializes in stories about endangered species and changes to the natural landscape. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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Read an Excerpt


To the Brink and Back--The Life and Times of One Giant Bird
By John Nielsen

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright ©2006 John Nielsen
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060088621

Chapter One

The Worst of Times

The pit traps used to catch the last wild condors looked like shallow graves. When Pete Bloom slid down into one and closed the small trap door, he entered a clammy earthen trench that was six feet long, two and a half feet wide, and approximately four feet deep. It was hard to move around down there without smashing your head on the support beams; not moving meant dealing with cramps that paralyzed your back, neck, and legs. Bloom said he often passed the time lying on his back next to the walkie-talkie, waiting for word that the last of the wild condors had arrived.

He liked it down there. He had to. In 1985, they were his office. "Typically I went into them before sunrise and came out an hour before sunset," he said. "Then often, I'd go back down into them the next day."

This is what the fight to save the California condor had come down to in 1987 -- buried biologists waiting for the chance to leap up out of the ground and grab the last free-flying condor, ending an era that had lasted for at least ten million years.

Nobody in the condor program liked that image, and some absolutely loathed it. But the scientists who knew the condorsbest knew they'd run out of options. Something in the condor's habitat was poisoning the birds, and rumors that somebody was trying to kill them were all over the place. The scientists were warning that a reproductive emergency was at hand. Every last condor had to be caught and brought to zoos for captive breeding.

Bloom believed the arguments held moments of weakness. "I felt like the state executioner," he told me once. "But I knew we were doing the right thing, so that's what I focused on."

In 1987, Bloom didn't look like the kind of guy you'd want to leave your kids with: he was skinny to the point of scrawniness with wild brown hair and a beard, and strange-looking scars made by talons and beaks on his leathery face and hands. He had been raised about a hundred miles south in Orange County, California, where his father maintained helicopters at the local Marine base. When he was a kid, he started trapping red-tailed hawks near his house for the fun of it, and then he started fitting them with tags that helped researchers track their movements. Over the years he'd learned to trap all kinds of other raptors, using everything from cannon nets to wire mesh baited with mice. When Bloom joined the condor recovery team in the 1980s, he was known as one of the most accomplished and reliable trappers.

Packing for the pit traps was a ritual for Bloom. Into his black filthy briefcase always went one walkie-talkie; one set of binoculars; one small battery-operated ceiling fan; one bag of lunch with an extra-large water bottle; one piece of airtight Tupperware with a small roll of toilet paper inside; one lucky hunting knife; one dirty rug; and one 100-percent-cotton sleeping bag. Synthetic bags were out because they were too noisy. Coffee, deodorant, strong-smelling foods, and bug sprays were also forbidden, even though the condors weren't thought to have a strong sense of smell. "They were avoiding us and we didn't know why," said Bloom. "I wasn't taking any chances."

The field crews dug at night when the condors were asleep. Usually it took a crew of six to build a trap from start to finish: three or four field biologists, one veterinarian, and one or two designated "master baiters," so named because it was their job to bolt the carcasses of stillborn calves to the ground in front of the trap. This job usually involved driving out to a local dairy and then wading through knee-deep pools of manure and urine to get the carcass, which was then hosed down, cleaned up, and moved to a freezer close to the trap. "Road-kill deer went in the freezer, too, if they were big enough," said Bloom. "The only thing we never used were the carcasses of animals shot and left behind by hunters."

When the trench was finished, it was reinforced with four-by-fours and covered by an inch-thick sheet of plywood. The trapdoor Bloom climbed in and out of was at the front of the structure; in the middle was a head-size hole covered by an upside-down wicker basket that was porous enough to see out of. When Bloom went in, the basket and the plywood were covered with dirt and bits of vegetation -- in the end, it looked like a bump in the pasture.

Scavenging birds of every shape and size were quickly drawn to the carcasses -- ravens, turkey vultures, black vultures, and golden eagles. When Bloom heard the birds hit the ground, he'd check the wicker viewing basket for black widow spiders, often squashing one or two beneath one of his boots. Then he'd push his head up through the hole in the plywood and peek at the mayhem taking place five feet in front of him. Sometimes Bloom saw a half dozen golden eagles fight for choice chunks of meat while another half dozen stood back waiting for an opening. Once he saw an eagle dive at least three hundred feet into the back of another large bird, knocking it senseless and clear of the spot the eagle wanted on the carcass.

"Ravens sometimes parted the grass in front of the basket with their beaks," said Bloom. "They would see my eyes looking at them, and back away like nothing had happened. I'm certain they knew I was there, they just couldn't believe it."

He could have reached out and grabbed any number of golden eagles by the legs: he'd done it dozens of times while working other jobs. But condors were another matter.


Excerpted from Condor by John Nielsen Copyright ©2006 by John Nielsen. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix
Introduction 1
1 The Worst of Times 9
2 Wing in a Grave 25
3 More Like Relatives 37
4 Sway of Kingdoms 47
5 Collateral Damage 61
6 Skin Record 78
7 Eggmen 93
8 Carl Koford 104
9 Hands-On 123
10 Contingencies 140
11 Endgame 149
12 Zoo 171
13 Grand Canyon 190
14 Not the Same Bird 202
15 The Real Killers 217
16 Elvis Reenters the Building 230
Afterword 243
Notes 247
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