Sibert Medalist, National Book Award Honoree, and New York Times bestselling author Sy Montgomery turns her formidable talents to the story of California condors and the scientists who have fought against their extinction in this installment in the award-winning Scientists in the Field series.
In April of 1987 the last wild California condor was captured and taken to live in captivity like the other twenty-six remaining birds of its kind. Many thought that the days were over of of this remarkable, distinguished bird that had roamed the skies of North and Central American for thousands of years.
Sy Montgomery employs her skill for on-the-ground reporting, shrewd observation, and stunning narrative prose to detail the efforts of scientists, volunteers, and everyday citizens to get California condors back in the wild. In particular, Montgomery profiles employees at the Santa Barbara Zoo who have worked tirelessly to raise abandoned chicks, nurse sick birds back to health, and conduct research that can support legislation to ban what is probably the largest threat to the existence of the wild condor: lead bullets. In turns affectionate and frustrated, hopeful and heartbreaking, Montgomery’s powerful prose does justice to these ancient, sociable, and elegant creatures.
Complete with world-class, full-color photography and helpful sidebars that provide details such as the history of the bird’s fight back from extinction, the dangers of lead poisoning, and the relationship of condors to the Chumash nation, Condor Comeback is an inspiring story of groundbreaking science, perseverance, and cooperation.
About the Author
Hometown:Hancock, New Hampshire
Date of Birth:February 7, 1958
Place of Birth:Frankfurt, Germany
Education:Syracuse University: B.A., Newhouse School of Public Communications, 1979; B.A., College of Arts and Sciences, 1979
Read an Excerpt
At the Zoo
SHE NEEDS TO DO NOTHING MORE than stand still to attract a crowd. Perched on her favorite rock outcropping in the spacious exhibit at the Santa Barbara Zoo, her wings clad in shiny black feathers that rustle like taffeta, California Condor 174 is a giant among birds. She towers at four feet (1.29 meters) tall—taller than the average seven-year-old girl—and weighs nearly thirty pounds (almost fourteen kilograms, or as much as a hundred baseballs). Her species is the largest species of bird in all of North America. Even her feathers are giants: some of them grow two feet (sixty-one centimeters) long. No wonder a group of people—including youngsters smaller than she—has gathered to watch her. She turns her orange neck and head to face the onlookers. Her red, knowing eyes briefly meet ours. It feels like a meeting of minds. With her stooped posture and bald, wrinkled, jowly head, she looks like a wizened sorceress, a sage, a powerful, wise old woman. When she raises her wings, holding them slightly open, she looks like she’s about to give a blessing—or cast a spell. Then, the magic really happens: she hops twice, flaps thrice, and spreads her wings nearly ten feet (over three meters) wide to sail across her enormous pen. “Wow! Look how big those wings are!” says a little girl wearing a pink sweatshirt and American flag sneakers. “Spread your wings!” a bearded dad urges his youngest daughter. Immediately, the little girl and her three siblings rush to compare their arm span to a life-size sign opposite the pen, showing a condor’s yawning wingspan. Thanks to these astonishing wings, a California condor can not only fly at a speed of 55 miles (88 kilometers) an hour but also soar to 15,000 feet (4,572 meters). Even more impressive, a condor can glide for miles without flapping, riding on rising currents of hot air called thermals and steering with just its tail and the tips of its long flight feathers. Condors don’t just traverse heaven; they dwell there. It’s easy to see why these birds have thrilled and fascinated people for thousands of years. Once California condors were found in western skies from Canada to Mexico, and some lived as far east as Florida. Native people revered them. To many tribes, the condor was sacred. This was with good reason: Flying so high, the condor sees all. And these birds may live for sixty or more years—long enough to grow wise. But the California condor was not sacred to Western settlers. Far from it. The newcomers shot the birds for sport. Ranchers accused them—falsely—of killing livestock. By the time conservationists realized condors were disappearing, their slide into extinction seemed unavoidable. “Aren’t they endangered?” a ponytailed woman watching 174 wonders. “They are critically endangered!” answers Dr. Estelle Sandhaus. In fact, Estelle tells the visitor, in 1982 there were fewer than two dozen of them left alive on the planet—and when the last one was captured in Southern California in April 1987, the California condor was officially extinct in the wild. A firecracker of a woman, standing five feet one inch tall, with shining brown hair, dancing brown eyes, and a laugh as exuberant as a waterfall, 41-year-old Estelle is the Santa Barbara Zoo’s director of conservation science. A big part of her job is to help make sure California condors forever grace North American skies. And that’s Condor 174’s job, too. Born March 4, 1998 at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, 174 came to Santa Barbara on October 15, 2012, where she is now serving as a mentor to younger birds. “She’s the most dominant bird,” Estelle explains. “She’s got sass. She’s got attitude. She knows she’s the boss.” At the moment, 174’s mentee is young Condor 603. She’s the youngest of the four California condors at the zoo (two others are not on display). Condor 603 was born in the wild but suffered a wing injury and was brought to the zoo. She can fly, but not well. At age three, she’s still a child by condor standards. She’s got much to learn—including condor manners. Condors are social creatures, like people. They like to do things in groups. When some of the captive birds were first moved to an exhibit at the Santa Barbara Zoo, a keeper noted that the whole group, together, carefully plucked every California poppy that was in bloom in the exhibit, and put them all in a pile in the corner. Then the flock moved the pile. The first time one of the zoo’s condors landed on the weighing scale, all the other condors then jumped on it. Because togetherness is important, 603’s education includes learning how a young condor should behave around her elders at mealtime. “They’re going to get rabbits today,” announces zoo bird keeper Ellie Culip. The condors eat four times a week. (In the wild, they sometimes eat so much they can’t fly for several hours, and they might not eat at all for several days afterward.) On today’s menu are white rabbits that were obtained from a breeder, humanely killed, then frozen, and thawed. Ellie walks inside a concrete tunnel built into the artificial rock outcropping in the exhibit. She dons plastic gloves and reaches into a white plastic bucket for the first of the two rabbits. There are two narrow tunnels built into the rock, each just a little longer than Ellie’s arm. Ellie will use one of these tunnels to push the food through to the condors on the other side. Why not just hand the birds the carcass? “We never let them see us with the food,” says Ellie. If wild condors are fed by humans, they’ll search out people—and that can be dangerous for an entire flock, because they learn from watching each other. And though these condors aren’t slated for release—both will probably stay at a zoo for breeding or to mentor other condors—“we don’t want to limit their possibilities for the future if management changes,” Ellie says. But it’s difficult to fool a condor. An orange face appears at the end of one of the tunnels. It’s 174. “They’re smart birds,” she explains. “They know I’m feeding them. But at least they never see me putting food down!” As soon as it appears at the other end of the tunnel, 174 instantly grabs the rabbit with her beak. Then Ellie pushes the second rabbit through. This one is for young 603, but, says Ellie, “I would not be surprised if 174 kicks 603 off and wants her rabbit, too!” This is exactly what happens. 174 yanks the second carcass away. She isn’t being a bully, she’s being a good mentor. Although condor parents lovingly feed their babies, when the chicks get older, they must learn the rules. And one of the most important rules is that, after they leave the nest, youngsters must defer to their elders. When condor conservationists first started raising captive-bred condor chicks, the adolescents that were released to the wild were in for a rude awakening. They probably expected to be babied like they were in the zoo. “The hand-raised youngsters weren’t tough enough,” Estelle explained. “There was no condor culture to teach them respect. They didn’t know what to do or quite how to behave like wild condors.” A wild condor will behave toward a youngster just like 174 does toward 603: Raising those formidable wings and showing off her sharp beak, the elder bird chases her young student away from the carcass again and again. But soon enough, when 174 has had her fill, there will be tasty scraps for 603 to enjoy, left behind on the rock outcropping. There’s plenty for both condors. When Ellie exits the concrete bunker, in an adjacent pen, Veronica, a turkey vulture, hops over to see if the keeper might have a scrap for her. “Is this a baby condor?” one of the bystanders asks. “No,” answers Ellie. “But people ask that a lot. And it’s a smart question. Condors are vultures, after all.” And that’s part of the uphill battle still being fought to save condors. “Vultures have a stigma,” says Estelle. “Some kids are like, ‘Ew, vultures! They’re mean. They’re gross. They eat dead things.’” Stories and films often portray vultures as icky. (Though at least Disney’s vultures are cool: In the original script for the first Jungle Book movie, in 1967, the four vultures were to be voiced by the Beatles! When the Fab Four declined, the scriptwriter changed the singing vultures into a barbershop quartet.) Estelle and Ellie tell kids that condors, like all vultures, are scavengers. “They’re not mean,” says Estelle. “They don’t even kill!” (Indeed, the author of one magazine article insisted that the condor is “nature’s original conscientious objector”—a huge and powerful bird who “could be a killer, but chooses instead to live in peace with his fellow creatures.”) And condors are characters. Some are bold. Some are shy. Some are bossy. Some are brave. When Estelle first met 327, she held the bird during her health check. The next time 327 saw her, the feisty female remembered Estelle as the person who had restrained her—and hissed at her in defiance! “I love to tell kids how each one has a personality,” says Estelle. “They’re amazed that a bird can be as cool as a fox or an elephant. But it’s true. “It makes me sad when I hear people say condors are ugly. They need to open their eyes to beauty that’s a little bit different,” Estelle urges. “I think they’re absolutely beautiful!” Most visitors who spend time with condors agree. One man comes regularly and sets up his easel in front of the condor exhibit to paint them. Four-year-old Abigail Rose Drennan is just as ardent a fan as he. With her mom, Traci, and often with her brother, eight-year-old James, Abigail has visited the condor pen at the zoo once a week since the day she was born. “They are so big,” she says, hopping with excitement, “and I like them!” Even though she’s only four, Abigail knows that the zoo is helping condors. “People have to help animals,” she says. “People should care because, if condors are gone, it would be sad.” But there was a time, not long ago, when many people, including some genuine conservationists, believed that condors should never be in a zoo. “The beauty of the California condor lies entirely in its matchless, soaring flight,” wrote one of the first researchers to study these birds, Carl Koford. When he wrote those words, wild condors were already disappearing. But he objected to the idea of capturing them so they could breed in the safety of a zoo. “The California condor in a cage is ugly, pitiful and uninspiring,” he claimed. Friends of the Earth founder David Brower thought captive breeding was worse than extinction. Better, he thought, that they should “die with dignity” in the wild. The naysayers have been proved wrong. Zoos have been key to the condor comeback. “The challenges condors are facing are entirely human in origin,” Estelle says, “and the good news is that the answers are also in human hands. We can do it. We know what to do. And this connects the people with the condors, so our visitors can be part of the solution.” The solution is at once simple and complicated. If humans would stop putting just two foreign toxic substances into the environment, the vast majority of premature condor deaths would be prevented. But until people change their ways, folks like Estelle, and many others you’ll meet in this book, are working hard to give the magnificent birds a second chance at survival. The effort to return California condors to the wild—a wild where they can safely live, breed, and raise their young without human help—is one of the most creative, controversial, and concentrated wildlife restoration efforts in conservation history.
TODAY, THE WORLD’S POPULATION of California condors has grown from twenty-two to more than four hundred fifty. A little over a third of them are in zoos like this one, where they are recuperating from illness or injury; teaching younger birds condor culture and etiquette; or mating, laying, or incubating eggs to augment their still small population. Most of the world’s California condors fly free today—not just here in Southern California, but in Central California, Arizona, Utah, and Mexico. But even after half a century of human help, the wild condors still need constant monitoring. People still need to step in to help. Every California condor wears a wing tag with a number so they can be identified and telemetry so they can be located and followed. Every one still needs regular health checks—and sometimes medical treatment—in a battle for survival in a world polluted by human-made garbage and toxic metal. “People say, ‘Fifty years and they’re not saved yet?!’” Estelle understands the frustration. At the zoo, Estelle is also working on saving endangered Channel Island foxes. (With three subspecies of the foxes taken off the endangered species list, it’s the fastest successful recovery of a federally listed endangered species in American history!) Why is that project moving forward so much more swiftly than the condor recovery? “Foxes have litters every year. Condors aren’t old enough to find a mate till they’re six, seven, or older. These are long-lived animals. This is like the marathon of conservation—while foxes are like the mile run. “We’ve hit a lot of major milestones in the program to conserve condors,” Estelle notes. “But we’re not done yet!” This book tells the story of the California condors’ continuing comeback. Its history contains more plot twists than a mystery novel; the recovery program faced, faltered, and overcame a minefield of obstacles. But there are still more to go. This is the story of partnerships between birds and people, cooperation between zoos, other nonprofits, and state, federal, and even international governmental organizations. It’s a story of roughly equal parts human vision and human blindness. Even when you finish this book, you won’t know how the story ends—but you will know some of what it takes to save a species, and what you can do to help.
ESTELLE’S STORY: FROM PANDAS TO CONDORS
“I KNEW I WANTED TO WORK with animals since I was very little,” Estelle remembers. In kindergarten, when the class was creating “Me” books about their hopes and dreams, Estelle drew a picture of herself giving a dog a vaccine. She wanted to be a veterinarian. Estelle and her family always enjoyed animals and the outdoors. Not long after Estelle was born in Philadelphia, the US Army transferred Estelle’s dad, a captain, to Oahu, Hawaii. There she and her mom and dad loved exploring the tropical mountains and valleys. When her dad retired from the army to practice law, the family moved to Arizona, and then, when Estelle was ten and her baby sister was only one, to California. But no matter where the family lived, she says, they always got outside to enjoy nature, and “we always went to zoos.” Estelle’s family included many pets: Eric the Doberman pincher; Heidi, also a Doberman; Gretchen the German shepherd; Sunny the parakeet; a cockatiel named Chance; a horse named Skywalker. In high school, against her mother’s wishes, Estelle brought home the class ball python, Snickers, for the summer. “But soon,” she remembers, her mom, a real estate agent, “was walking around the house with the snake draped over her shoulders.” Drawn to its biology program, and its location, near San Diego Zoo and Scripps Institute of Oceanography, Estelle went to college at University of California, San Diego. She started volunteering at the zoo, collecting data on panda behavior—and, not surprisingly, fell in love with the adorable black and white bears. When the zoo’s director moved to Atlanta, she followed him there for graduate school. Soon Estelle found herself moving to the pandas’ native China to collect data for her doctorate. Working at the Chendu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, she made observations of the bears’ behaviors and cataloged their vocal communication. She even got to play with a baby panda named Liang Liang. While in China, a job opening appeared for a conservation and research coordinator in the Animal Department of the Santa Barbara Zoo. The zoo was known for its protection efforts for endangered Channel Island foxes. But the zoo had recently taken on a new project. “We are closer than any other zoo to condor country,” the zoo’s new CEO, Rich Block, reasoned, “and we need to be part of the condor recovery program!” He hired Estelle in 2006 and put her talents to work on the birds’ behalf. Back then, most of the wild condor nests in Southern California were failing. A scientist based in San Diego found the nestlings were choking on small bits of trash. Research was urgently needed to find out more. So Estelle switched the subject of her PhD thesis from the breeding behavior of giant pandas to the nesting behavior of California condors. Rich likes to boast that Estelle dumped pandas for condors! Surprisingly, the cuddly, furry pandas and the scavenging giant vultures have much in common. “Both are umbrella species,” explains Estelle, “requiring large tracts of land to be set aside to protect them—land which, at the same time, protects many other plants and animals in the same ecosystem.” And both species presented Estelle with similar scientific questions. How long do these long-lived animals stay with their parent(s)? (Giant pandas stay with the mother a year and a half to two years—roughly the same amount of time that condors stay with their parents.) Do youngsters fare better being reared by humans or in the wild by their own kind? “Before too long,” Estelle said, “I was living and breathing condors.” Immersed in the condors’ world, she’s learned how to hide food at her campsite from marauding bears, and how to avoid skirmishes with mountain lions. She’s had to drive over a burning log to escape a raging forest fire. She’s learned wilderness first aid. And as well as collecting and interpreting data, her work demands strenuous hikes, carrying twenty-five pounds of supplies and scientific gear into wild, rough terrain. The mountains are so steep her ears pop as she climbs; and at the end of the long days, her muscles ache. She’s sprained her ankles, strained her shoulders, and kept going through hot, dry summers and cold, windy winters. It’s a good thing that Estelle was always physically fit. In high school and college, she worked summers as a lifeguard. She excelled in track and field—even though, she notes, she didn’t have a typical runner’s long legs and tall, slender frame. In college, she sometimes felt annoyed that her body wasn’t the same shape as the other athletes she saw on TV or the models in magazines—but she eventually realized that what’s most important about a body is that it be strong and healthy. Estelle had to be tough and fit to do the work she’s always dreamed of doing—the work she continues today. She wants kids to know that “it doesn’t matter if the people you see in magazines or on TV doing what you want to do don’t look like you.” No matter if you’re short or tall, thin or not, Estelle will tell you, “Don’t let anything stop you from pursuing your dream!”