Read Condor Online

Authors: John Nielsen



To the Brink and Back—
The Life and Times of
One Giant Bird


For Danny, Jonah, and Eli

his book was made possible by people who offered me more help than I had a right to ask for, by people who helped me through some long dark nights, and by people who know the California condors better than I ever have or will.

Thanks to Megan Newman, my original editor at HarperCollins. Thanks as well to my endlessly patient agent, James Levine, of the Levine Greenberg Literary Agency. Thanks to the entire staff of the science unit at NPR News; thanks especially to Anne Gudenkauf, NPR's science editor. In the darkest of those long dark nights, I got infusions of support from the wise and powerful Nancy Huddleston Packer of Stanford University. Barton Kraff, Kathleen Nadeau, and Nancy Ratey also helped to keep me sane. Naturally the most important late-night aid and comfort was provided by my brother, Peter, my sister, Kirsten, and my parents, Tom and Marilyn Nielsen.

Researchers and archivists and human packrats had a hand in the making of this book. They include Kee Malesky at NPR News; Susan Snyder at the Bancroft Library at the University of California-Berkeley; John Heyning of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History; Jan Hamber of the Santa Barbara Museum of
Natural History; Linnea S. Hall of the Western Foundation for Vertebrate Zoology; Steven Herman of Evergreen State College; Dave Phillips of the Earth Island Institute; Les Reid of Pine Mountain, California; Greg MacMillan of Shandon, California; Jon Borneman of Ventura, California; and Antony Pietro of Santa Barbara, California. I also got important help from the Library of Congress, the California Academy of Sciences, the Ventura County Museum of History, and the Santa Clarita Valley History Society.

Every living leader of the field teams who worked to save the condor took my calls and shared their secrets. So did the leaders and condor teams at the Los Angeles Zoo and the San Diego Wild Animal Park. Special thanks in that regard to Lloyd Kiff, Noel Snyder, Mike Wallace, Bill Toone, Shawn Farry, Sophie Osborne, Robert Mesta, Sandy Wilbur, Mike Scott, Mark Hall, John Ogden, and Fred Sibley.

Last and most I'd like to ask you all to rise and cheer the unsung field grunts still at large in the California condor's domain. They're the ones who'll save or lose this species in the end and they need to know that we're behind them.

he California condor is the Elvis Presley of endangered species. It is huge, it is iconic, it is worshipped and despised, it is beautiful and hideously ugly. It does a wicked mating dance and eats colossal meals. And, it's not really dead.

The California condor is a New World vulture with telescopic eyes, a razor-sharp beak, and a wingspan of nearly ten feet. Helicopter pilots say they've seen it soaring well above ten thousand feet. I have seen it glide for miles without ever bothering to flap. Condors never show the wobbly V shape you see on smaller, lesser vultures. The giant black wings form a horizontal line that's often mistaken for an airplane. The thick black feathers at the ends of these wings are nearly two feet long.

Condors used to travel in the company of birds with wings that made their own wings look weak. During the Pleistocene epoch, these birds formed a scavenging armada that searched out the carcasses of mastodons. Meals the size of cars were quickly reduced to piles of gristle and bone. Then, ten thousand years later, the other giants vanished, leaving the condor alone. Ever since, it's been the largest living flying thing over North America.

The condor is the soul of the wilderness. The condor is smarter than you think. The condor is a rat with ten-foot wings and the enemy of progress. It's a bird whose sad demise and incomplete recovery is a preview of the future facing lions, tigers, bears, and other charismatic species.

Take what you want from the paragraphs above, but be forewarned. Once this bird gets into your head, it does exactly as it pleases. You can try to shoo it away, do it harm, and forget it's even there, but the condor will still be there in the background somewhere, biding its own sweet time. Then one day it will rise, spread its giant wings, lean into the wind, and own you.

I remember standing near the edge of the cliff in the Hopper Mountain Wildlife Refuge in Ventura County, California, one day in the 1980s when I heard a distant rumbling sound rise up the side of the cliff: it was so strange and strong that it didn't seem to need a shape. Whatever it was that was making that sound clearly didn't care who or what might hear it coming.

As the rumble turned into a roar, I took a half-step toward the cliff, thinking that sound was vaguely musical. That was when the mammoth shape exploded up past the lip of the cliff into my field of vision: an adult condor with its wings spread wide, shooting straight up into the air.

That's the condor that owns me now. It's not the one I grew up dreading, a bird that entered my consciousness in the early 1960s when my father rented a mansion at the edge of a virtual ghost town less than fifty miles north of downtown Los Angeles. The town once known as Piru City was built in the 1860s by a man named David Cook, who'd made a fortune selling Bibles and religious tracts in his home state of Illinois. Mr. Cook had brought his weak lungs west for some clean air and bought a portion of a cattle ranch. On this land he'd planted rows of citrus trees and fruits
mentioned in the Bible. Then he invited nonsmoking, nondrinking white Christian families to come and live in his “Second Garden of Eden,” picking fruits and vegetables in a wholesome, healthy setting. To lure the pickers in, he built a Main Street and a beautiful Methodist Church. For himself he built a three-story Queen Anne mansion in the hills behind the town.

Then, unexpectedly, Mr. Cook sold his land to an oil company and took his fully recovered lungs home to Illinois. Some people say Mr. Cook left town because the trains kept bringing drinkers and smokers to Piru City. When he left, the town began decaying. It was still decaying in the 1960s when my father took a job in the area and started looking for a place to put his wife and kids. Mr. Cook's seven-room Queen Anne mansion was for rent for $160 a month. I thought it looked spooky, but Mom and Dad liked it: one week later we were in.

I was a child of the suburbs then—Dad had come to build one—and now we were in a house that fit that world about as well as Dorothy's shack fit the Wonderful Land of Oz. Mr. Cook's mansion was a creaking relic of the 1880s, with stained-glass windows warped by the sun, termite-infested twenty-foot ceilings, and a red stone tower with a turret. An abandoned outhouse in the backyard was full of wasps and spiders, and the ruined wood reservoir a little farther back was full of lizards and scorpions. My mom fell in love with Piru instantly. Little brother Peter, baby sister Kirsten, and I were a little stunned at first, but in about a week it was home.

Dad drove east to a truck stop called Castaic every day on a road so narrow and full of curves that it was known as Blood Alley. His office, a former ranch house, was full of architects and builders who'd been hired to plant a city on a swath of empty grazing lands and feedlots. It was to be called Valencia, after the metropolis in Spain. This Valencia was to be a “planned community” that fea
tured split-level ranch-style homes and centrally located shopping, all with easy access to a brand-new interstate.

My brother and I went to Piru Elementary School, where rattlesnakes sometimes crawled down from the hills and onto the football field. When school was out, we ran through the orange orchards. When we got home, we climbed up into the turret at the top of the tower. To the south were orange orchards and the sandy bed of the lazy-looking Santa Clara River. Past the river, farther south, ran a line of low, steep mountains. Beyond them another freeway cut down through Simi Valley, pulling malls and suburbs in behind it.

Behind the turret to the north was a scarier set of mountains, taller and more forbidding than those to the south. Dad told us once that far beneath these mountains, big slabs of rock called tectonic plates were fighting with one another and pushing the mountains up from below. Sometimes the fighting got so bad that the mountains split and crumbled as they got pushed higher up into the air. Dad said there were giant cracks called fault lines in these mountains. When they moved, the earth shook. Sometimes people died.

The mountains behind Piru are part of a set of ranges that used to separate Southern California from the rest of the state. For at least a century, these mountains were feared by travelers passing through them: they were where the bandits and the fugitives hid out, as well as the biggest, most ferocious grizzly bears.

The last of the California condors made their homes in this forbidden zone, raising their young in the caves of the cliffs. For all I knew, the birds were there to guard the hidden castle of some kind of evil queen. I even went out looking for that castle once or twice, climbing through the yucca and the thistle on the steep, dry hills directly behind the mansion. I took naps in the shallow caves in the
wall of the dried-out ravine. I found a tarantula one time and took it to third-grade show-and-tell, and on another occasion, I wet my pants in terror when a rattlesnake under a bush decided to make his presence known. I even started a brush fire once that could have burned the mansion down.

When I was exploring, I kept an eye out for the monster birds. A Mexican kid named Mike Ortega gets both the credit and the blame for that. He was the one who swore that gringo-eating vultures always hid inside the storm clouds, waiting for kids like me to stop moving. If I did, the condors would come shooting down like lightning bolts, ripping me to smithereens, or maybe carrying me back to the castle of that queen. Mike's dad, Angel Ortega, later told me that his son was fibbing: what condors really did was kill and eat eight-year-old kids who played hooky from school and sneaked around in the orange orchards, smoking cigarettes. I was almost sure this wasn't true, but I was not about to take chances, since at the time I was a hooky-playing eight-year-old who smoked cigarettes in the orchards. For a long time I looked back for giant black wings up at the edges of the clouds. But I never saw them, so I stopped.


Twenty years later, I got a call from an editor at
Sports Illustrated
, asking whether I would like to write a story about a pair of doomed vultures living in the mountains north of Los Angeles. They were the last two free-flying condors in the world, he said. Roughly twenty more were living in off-exhibit breeding pens at two Southern California zoos. Federal biologists had been sent in to catch the last two free-flying condors and take them to the breeding compounds. Some environmental groups supported the plan, while others were absolutely livid. One of the angriest critics was the
legendary David Brower, who saw the condor struggle as a land war. Brower thought the condor needed wilderness like a fish needs water: when the birds were trapped they would no longer be condors, he argued, and the wilderness would be badly wounded.

The people who ran the condor program said Brower didn't know what he was talking about, adding that the wilderness was no longer a safe place for condors to be. They didn't know why, but they knew the birds were dying out there, and so they had to take the final step.

I agreed to do the piece and drove back to Piru, which had yet to emerge from its coma. After meeting with trappers and their critics, I wrote a quick-and-dirty guide to the California condor wars, in which I attempted to explain how the species had reached its sorry state. By the time
Sports Illustrated
published the story in early 1987, there was only one wild condor left, and that one didn't last very long. On Easter Sunday that year, the condor known as AC-9 (or Igor, to his friends, perhaps because he walked in a stiff-legged, clumsy way when he was a chick) was captured and transported to a zoo.

This was one of the sadder days in American environmental history, but it may also have been the day the condor was saved. Condors did well in captivity, or at least that's how it looked. In 1992, a pair of birds that had been hatched and reared in zoos was released in the mountainous back country of Ventura County, near the place where Igor had been captured. Many more releases followed, as the zoo-bred condors were restored not only to the Transverse Ranges north of Los Angeles County but also to the coastal mountains near the town of Big Sur. In 1996, more zoo-breds were set free near the Grand Canyon. In 2003, they were released in the mountains of Baja California. From a possible low of fewer than twenty in the late 1970s, the zoo-based condor population had grown at least tenfold, to the point where there are now more than
two hundred of the birds alive, and for that I am grateful. The monster of my youth had been returned to me.

But present and accounted for is not the same as saved. It could take a hundred years or more to truly save this species, and no one thinks salvation is assured; its grazing lands are full of carcasses shot full of lead. For fifty years the condor recovery program has been a kind of scientific bar fight. On top of all the injuries sustained in the field are the shattered friendships and the grudges, and the careers that were ruined in the service of the bird. Some of these fights were inevitable, given how close the condor has come to extinction: every decision is a gamble in such a situation, and one or two mistakes could be enough to bury the species.

Many millions have been spent on condors since the end of World War II—twenty million in federal and state dollars, which makes the California Condor Recovery Program easily the most expensive endangered species conservation effort ever mounted in the United States. Every move the captive condors make in the zoos is videotaped and studied at great length, and all one hundred condors in the wild have tracking devices on their wings. The birds are trapped and tested for a wide range of toxins on a regular basis. New satellites may soon track their movements in real time.

It's true that the condor has long been a species with no ecological value. Some critics say that means we need to let it go. Other experts argue that the money spent on condors could be put to better use.

And, yes, there is that other more basic complaint: Why should anybody want to save a bird as ugly as a California condor? This is a vulture that cools its legs by peeing all over them, a vulture that jams its head into the soft parts of dead things. It's a bird that decorates the walls of its caves in layers of feces and vomit, a bird whose bald, red, and badly scarred head makes it look like the survivor of a terrible fire.

Fortunately, these images vanish the instant the bird takes flight. You may think there's no chance you could ever give a damn about this bird, but take my word for it: once you see the condor soaring, it owns you.

I don't think the condor will be saved until people take the fight to save it personally. I do, and here's why. While visiting a condor refuge near Piru, I helped some field biologists trap a dozen condors for blood tests. When the birds were back up in the air again, I saw a battered wing tag lying on the ground. It had just been taken off a condor known to some as AC-8 and to others as the Matriarch. AC-8 was one of the last free-flying condors captured in the 1980s, when she and Igor were a breeding pair. At the Los Angeles Zoo, she'd bred for years, producing many offspring. In the late 1990s, she was the first of the formerly wild condors to be reintroduced to the wild.

When I held up her tag to one of the biologists, he said, “Oh, go ahead,” so I put the tag in my pocket. When I got home, I stuck it up on the wall in front of my computer, and sometimes when I couldn't write, I looked at it for a while, trying to imagine it hanging from the wing of the Matriarch as she soared the base of a storm cloud at ten thousand feet.

A few months later, the Matriarch was blown away by a pig hunter who said he didn't know the bird with the giant wings was a California condor.

I am not the kind of guy who dedicates books to a vulture, but if I were, this book would be for her.

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