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, ...

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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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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061740640
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/13/2009
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 1,090,844
  • File size: 2 MB

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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First Chapter


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 condors best 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 weredoing 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.

Condor. Copyright © by John Nielsen. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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