On the Bookshelf, Summer 2006
Condor: To the Brink and Back—The Life and Times of One Giant Bird
By John Nielsen
Harper Collins, 2006
Reviewed by Scott Weidensaul
John Nielsen grew up in the shadow of the California condor, psychically if not physically. In the 1960s, he was a kid roaming the foothills of the rugged mountains near the Sespe Range in central California, frightened at the notion (planted by his young friends) that the giant, unseen vultures lurking somewhere in that remote backcountry would swoop down to attack.
As a writer twenty years later, he began chronicling the condor’s roller- coaster fortunes—and lost his heart to the bird he once feared. Nielsen, an environmental reporter for National Public Radio, stakes out his allegiances quickly in Condor, his lively and hugely readable account of this Pleistocene survivor’s checkered fortunes. “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.”
Writing for a general audience, Nielsen uses rich, muscular language and vivid descriptions to bring alive the bird, its world, and the work of the field biologists who have tried—with varying degrees of success—to save this most famous of endangered species. Here’s a passage in which he describes the experiences of a scrawny young
biologist named Pete Bloom, who spent months in grave-like pit blinds trying to capture the last free-flying condors in the 1980s:
“Bloom said it was easy to recognize the roar of an approaching condor: the whoosh that became a roar kept getting louder and louder until it ended with the thump of great big feet and the clatter of enormous wings. When the condors walked directly over the trap, Bloom could hear them breathing, their wheezing lungs sounding something like a winded child’s.”
Nielsen is a deft storyteller, but it doesn’t hurt that the condor’s history is freighted with colorful human characters, from overzealous egg-collectors living in caves on the condor cliffs to turn-of-the-century naturalist Joseph P. Grinnell, who could tell when the local kangaroo rats had come into breeding condition by noting the marks left in the sand by the males’ scrotal sacs. Looming large in the story is Carl Koford, the young researcher Grinnell hired in 1939, with National Aud-ubon’s help, to conduct the first study of the condors.
Koford was a bit of an odd duck, thriving in the chaparral and living for weeks at a time on little but canned apricots. His work, interrupted by World War II, resulted in the 1952 publication of the seminal work on condor ecology. It also left Koford convinced that the best thing anyone could do for condors was to leave them the hell alone, and he managed in the 1950s to scuttle a plan to create a small captive flock. Embraced by wilderness activists like David Brower and backed up by Koford’s almost godlike credibility on all things condorish, it was a view that held up serious research and conservation measures until it was almost too late. In many ways, the fight over how to save the condor has been far nastier than the fight over whether to save it—and, as Nielsen shows, it’s far from over today.
The conflict between the hands-off and hands-on camps forms a significant part of his story, and given Nielsen’s evident sympathy for the hands-on approach, he does an admirable job of not taking sides. In fact, his book is a gripping tutorial on the trial-and-error nature of wildlife management—the heart-stopping way scientists must make decisions that may save or doom a species, often with little or no information to guide them, and the bitter internecine conflicts that those decisions may spark among people of good intentions but differing opinions.
But Condor’s flaw is one that conservationists will note with particular regret. Having brought his readers through this remarkable story, Nielsen misses a golden opportunity to sum up the lessons of the condor’s long travail and apply them to broader questions of endangered species conservation, thus forcing us to confront what they mean for the preservation of the larger wild world.
The condor’s history may be the future for other charismatic but inconvenient species like bears, big cats, and elephants, and I would have welcomed his insights into an issue I have struggled with as a conservationist. Since we can’t afford to spend tens of millions of dollars and decades of exhausting field work in pulling back every species from its final death spiral, how best can society use its limited resources to preserve the most challenging of megafauna—those with enormous ranges and habits that bring them into repeated conflict with humanity? What wisdom have we accrued, in the long slog to pull the condor back from the brink, that can be applied in other places and to other species?
Unfortunately, these are not questions Nielsen spends much time pondering. Admittedly, there is no way to bring the condor’s story to a neat finish because the end is far from certain. Condors are now breeding in the wild but still dying at a frightening rate from lead poisoning; many of the wild-born chicks die from ingesting all manner of manmade junk. Released condors have often behaved more like teenage thugs than wild birds, even breaking into homes.
The fault lines among the condor’s defenders are as deep as ever, splitting colleagues over such fundamental questions as whether modern America is simply too toxic a place for the condor—whether this magnificent bird, whose history is such a cautionary tale, has a future as anything other than a sham species stocked from zoos just fast enough to replace the ever-dying wild birds.
On the Bookshelf, Summer 2006July 29th, 2008