Return of the Condor: The Race to Save Our Largest Bird from Extinction

Overview

Return of the Condor is a riveting account of one of the most dramatic attempts to save a species from extinction in the history of modern conservation.

The California condor, North America’s largest bird, lives 50 years or more, is highly intelligent, often mates for life, can fly 150 miles in a day, and was believed by Native Americans to have supernatural powers. But its strength and endurance were not enough to save it from near-extinction. Human greed and ignorance caused ...

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Overview

Return of the Condor is a riveting account of one of the most dramatic attempts to save a species from extinction in the history of modern conservation.

The California condor, North America’s largest bird, lives 50 years or more, is highly intelligent, often mates for life, can fly 150 miles in a day, and was believed by Native Americans to have supernatural powers. But its strength and endurance were not enough to save it from near-extinction. Human greed and ignorance caused the great bird’s decline. Human ingenuity and insight became its only hope.
 
Down to only twenty-two individuals in the 1980s, the condor owes its survival and recovery to a remarkable team of scientists who flouted conventional wisdom and pursued the most controversial means to save it. Conservationists and scientists have fought what at times has seemed a quixotic battle to save the species. Theirs is a story of passion, courage, and bitter controversy, one that created a national debate over how to save America’s largest bird.

Return of the Condor chronicles this epic story. We meet Jan Hamber, the biologist who made the agonizing decision to capture AC9, the young male who was the last living wild condor; Carl Koford, the brilliant scientist whose flawed conclusions delayed a captive-breeding program until it was almost too late; and two of the condors whose survival was critical, including AC9 himself. There is tragedy and triumph in their stories. Today, condors are more numerous and far easier to see than at any time in the past century, and their expanding territory is home to millions of Americans. For America’s 52 million birders and anyone who cares about saving our natural heritage, this inspiring story shows what happens when we commit ourselves to working with nature instead of against it.

“Pulling the California condor back from the brink of extinction has been difficult and expensive. But this fine book by John Moir makes abundantly clear why preserving magnificent beings like our once-more wild condors is one of twenty-first-century society’s more important obligations.”
—Alan Tennant author of On The Wing: To The Edge Of The Earth With The Peregrine Falcon

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Audubon himself would be delighted to read John Moir's exciting and authoritative account of the difficult, politically fraught but ultimately rewarding effort to save the largest of all the living birds, a great shadow in the sky above the Western range. I certainly was."—Richard Rhodes, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and author of John James Audubon: The Making of an American

"By the 1980s, the California condor was well on its way to extinction. The saga of this magnificent bird, which had soared above the North American continent at a time when mastodons and saber-toothed cats still roamed the Earth, seemed to be nearing the end. The only thing standing in the way of this grim fate was the dedication of a small group of researchers and naturalists, committed to saving the condor. With eloquence and insight, John Moir chronicles the effort to save this spectacular bird. His book is a remarkable testament to what a few dedicated individuals can accomplish."—Tim Gallagher, Director of Publications, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology

"Return of the Condor is an account of cutting-edge conservation biology, but it is also an eminently human story. John Moir’s focus is on the problematic intersection between science and scientists, between bird lovers and the great bird itself. The subject matter—complex and controversial, ultimately heartwarming—demands a skilled and sympathetic writer, and Moir’s chronicle is thoroughly successful in this regard."—Ted Floyd, editor of Birding Magazine, American Birding Association

"John Moir’s dramatic account of bringing the condor back from the brink of extinction is a reminder of the fragility of life on our planet and of the capacity of one species, humans, to protect or extinguish all others. Return of the Condor is a powerful tribute to the scientists, politicians, hunters, environmentalists, and concerned citizens who ultimately found a way to work together to ensure the survival of one of the most remarkable species on Earth."—Mark Schaefer, CEO, Global Environment and Technology Foundation, Former president of NatureServe

"A heart-stopping saga of the rescue from the very brink of extinction of one of the grandest of all birds. Starting with page one, I was captured by Return of the Condor. America is the richer for the success of those who fought against all odds . . . and this tale is one all should read."—Thomas Lovejoy, President, The Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment, Founder of the PBS series Nature

"Pulling the California condor back from the brink of extinction has been difficult, and expensive. But this fine book by John Moir makes abundantly clear why preserving magnificent beings like our once-more wild condors is one of 21st century society's more important obligations."—Alan Tennant, author of On The Wing: To The Edge Of The Earth With The Peregrine Falcon

"John Moir has written an uplifting and well-researched tale that takes us on the condor's roller-coaster ride to recovery. Equally exhilarating and heart-breaking, this important story brings complex issues into clear focus and lets us understand—with both heart and mind—why we need to save this intelligent and majestic bird."—Maria Mudd Ruth, author of Rare Bird: Pursuing the Mystery of the Marbled Murrelet

“Moir deftly chronicles the efforts of the dedicated biologists…who work to save the California condor from extinction.”— Publishers Weekly

"The passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet are gone forever, victims of ignorance and exploitation. John Moir eloquently describes the inspired effort to save the condor from the same fate. It is a compelling story that reminds us that human ingenuity and perseverance can ensure the survival of a species—when we recognize and value the diversity of life on Earth."—Mark Schaefer, CEO, Global Environment and Technology Foundation, Former president of NatureServe

Publishers Weekly
Moir deftly chronicles the efforts of the dedicated biologists at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service who work to save the California condor from extinction. Remarkable birds with 10-foot wing spans and the ability to fly 150 miles a day, the condors numbered only 27 in 1987, and, although members of the service's condor recovery program had for years been trying to help the population recover in the wild, all but one of the birds lived in captivity. After a bruising battle with those who opposed confining condors for any reason (including David Brower of Friends of the Earth), the biologists captured the remaining wild condor and put all their efforts into a captive breeding program. Moir, who has spent years writing about the recovery team's work, keeps the reader in suspense from the poignant moment when the last wild condor was captured to the triumphant morning in 1992 when the first birds raised in captivity were released. Today more than 125 California condors fly free. But as Moir convincingly shows, their environment is fraught with dangers. The book includes appendixes listing condor Web sites and places to view condors. (Oct.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Now that there are more than 125 wild California Condors again flying free in three states plus Baja California, this fine book provides a valuable update on North America's largest bird. In 1987, the last wild condor was captured in California. Thus began a long, arduous, and controversial captive breeding program but hardly controversial any longer, now that its success is manifest. Without the program, these massive, vulture-like birds would be extinct. Award-winning science journalist Moir provides an informed retelling of an oft-told story. He has interviewed many of the principals, having lived most of his life in condor country, and writes engagingly of the bitter disagreements between proponents and opponents of captive breeding, the political implications of this story, the dangers newly released condors face, their surprising intellect, and the interest and publicity they have garnered. Moir's useful, annotated appendixes detail condor web sites as well as where to see wild and captive condors. Another worthy recent book is NPR correspondent John Nielsen's Condor. Highly recommended for the natural history, biology, and ornithology collections of public and academic libraries. (Color insert not seen.) Henry T. Armistead, formerly with Free Lib. of Philadelphia Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781592289493
  • Publisher: Globe Pequot Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2006
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 1,435,596
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

John Moir is a naturalist and science educator, and his articles have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The San Francisco Examiner, the San Jose Mercury News, and The Sacramento Bee, among others.

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Read an Excerpt

RETURN OF THE CONDOR excerpt:

Chapter 1
The Last Condor

Jan Hamber faced an agonizing dilemma. The condor she had been tracking—the last member of its species to exist in the wild—had approached a trap site on remote Hudson Ranch north of Los Angeles. It was late on a spring day in 1987, and Hamber watched through binoculars as AC9 landed near the stillborn calf that served as bait. The condor circled the carcass, keeping his distance while a Golden Eagle fed on the calf. The sunlight accented AC9's intelligent eyes and bare, salmon-colored head. An ink-black ruff of feathers circled the base of his neck. As AC9 stretched and refolded his wings, the undersides flashing white, the sun sank lower over the chaparral-covered hills. But AC9 flew away without touching the carcass.
Hamber followed the bird in her car, tracking his radio signal to a roost site on nearby Brush Mountain. She wore a wool cap over her short brown hair, and a bulky light-blue goosedown jacket to ward off the cool air settling into the canyons. The tiny crow's feet at the corners of her eyes were evidence of the many hours she spent squinting through binoculars and spotting scopes.
When Jan first encountered AC9 in 1980, he was still a downy young chick in his nest, and over the years she had watched him mature into an adult bird. She had a photograph from two months earlier of AC9 looking down from a bare oak tree as biologists carried away the only other remaining wild condor, which they had just captured. A mere 27 condors were left in the world: the recovery effort Jan worked for represented the last hope for saving the species from extinction. And AC9 was crucial to their success.
Darkness forced Hamber to make a momentous decision. "I knew what would happen," she told me years later, the memories still vivid. "AC9 had seen the carcass, but he hadn't eaten yet. He would come back the next day." She took a breath and considered her next move. Should she notify her team of fellow condor biologists to set a trap for AC9 in the morning? Or should she simply turn her car homeward, leaving the last wild condor his freedom? "I realized not a single soul in the world knew about this except me. I could call in the team to capture AC9. But if I didn't make that call, no one would ever know."
Jan checked the dashboard clock. Doing nothing was a decision by default—she needed to take charge, to make up her mind. Had any other human ever confronted such a quandary, she wondered: knowingly capturing the last individual of a species? Despite the work of all the science panels and government agencies, tonight this decision was hers alone. The future of the last wild condor, and perhaps of the species itself, rested in her hands. Earlier in the day she’d listened as the call of a Red-tailed Hawk echoed down a nearby canyon; she knew her call would reverberate even louder and longer, quite probably through the rest of her life. She thought again: This recovery effort is the last hope.

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Table of Contents

Introduction
Chapter 1 The Last Condor
Chapter 2 Giant Avian Primates
Chapter 3 Dancing Molokbes and Sinister Buzzards
Chapter 4 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Chapter 5 Death of a Chick
Chapter 6 Doin' the Double-Clutch Two-Step
Chapter 7 Point of No Return
Chapter 8 Kids on the Loose
Chapter 9 A Senseless Shooting
Chapter 10 AC8's Day in Court
Chapter 11 Shadows in the Sky
Chapter 12 Homeward Bound
Appendix 1 Where to See Condors
Appendix 2 How to Learn More About Condors

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