The Condor Question Revisited

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Condors went extinct here in the Sierra San Pedro Martir in the 1930s when a rancher’s bullet dropped the final bird. Locally extinct. The towering sugar pines in these northern Baja mountains remember those vultures, as do white firs and the gnarled lodgepoles that roosted relict ghosts for eight lonely decades.

The condors have returned now, with considerable help from the San Diego Zoo, but the ghosts of condors past still haunt this sierra. I’m haunted these days as well, troubled by a book written six years prior to the momentous Easter Sunday when the last free condor was captured up north in California. That was the true condor moment, when the species went extinct in the wild. The book was called The Condor Question and was published by a group with a spooky acronym, F.O.E.

One should always be careful bringing books to a field station, mindful of Louis Agassiz’s admonition, “Study nature, not books.”

The Condor Question was published in a different era, 1981, when the $6.95 paperback version was considered pricey. In 1981 Edward Abbey had not yet married his fifth wife. The most notable gunshot victims that year were Ronald Reagan, John Paul II, and Anwar el-Sadat. The first space shuttle, Columbia, launched in 1981; it would fly twenty-seven missions before disintegrating on re-entry twenty-two years later.

By the early 1980s the California Condor had become an icon of wilderness preservation, the centerpiece of a campaign orchestrated by Friends of the Earth to thwart a proposed recovery program co-sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Audubon Society. Activists were against every element of the program, be it capturing wild condors in cannon nets, radio-tagging them, or, most especially, implementing a captive cage-breeding program at the San Diego Zoo. F.O.E. founder David Brower was adamant that condors had rights, insisting that all they needed for their recovery was habitat where they could fly wild and free, “unmolested by biologists,” as he put it.

The Condor Question is begged by its subtitle, Captive or Forever Free? When I first perused this polemic I was entirely persuaded by it, convinced that the proposed capture program was a reckless gamble. The scheme relied on technological manipulations of a species that, according to the book, was extremely sensitive to human disturbance. The argument was simple: leave the condor alone and focus on protecting its habitat.

I like simple arguments. Like many environmentalists of the time, I used to think of habitat preservation as the one-size-fits-all solution to each and every conservation problem. For many of us, this was an article of faith—we believed in nature. But we should have realized, even back then, that the extinction of bird species isn’t always related to habitat loss.

Consider the extensive experience we’d already had with the extinction of American avifauna. In 1888, the Smithsonian Institution’s annual report contained this notice:

The curator of birds has called special attention to the fact that several species of North American birds are fast becoming extinct, and has emphasized the desirability of obtaining additional specimens before it is too late. These species are: Great Auk, Plautus impinnis; Laborador Duck, Camptolainus cupido; Passenger Pigeon, Ectopistes migretorius; California Vulture, Pseudogrphus californianus; Carolina Paroquet, Cornurus cardinensis; and Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Campephilus principalis.

Even if you want to argue that one or two Ivory-billed Woodpeckers still populate an unknown refugium on this continent, you must grant that the only bird on the curator’s wish list that people like us will ever see alive is the California Condor, which is now designated Gymnogyps californianus.

Last summer, by the good graces of the San Diego Zoo Global Institute for Conservation Research, I made a pilgrimage the California Condor Field Station in Baja California, Mexico. My original intent was to assist with the expatriation of a few worthy scavengers, but I ended up spending my south-of-the-border sojourn searching for a historic bird that had gone missing. She is one of thirty-three free-flying condors who currently call Baja home.

Free-flying. Notice that I didn’t say “wild condors.” No offense to the charismatic avifauna in question: they were certainly statuesque, unexpectedly dignified, and magnificent in almost every regard. But these semi-wild birds made active use of a feeding station where their food was vetted to make certain it did not contain bullet fragments. At the same time they all wore patagial tags to which solar-powered radio transmitters were attached, one to each wing, each bird broadcasting in stereo on its assigned frequency. Wild birds tend not to wear that much jewelry, and it took me a while to get used to it. For the first few days, every time I saw one, I recalled Kenneth Brower’s proclamation in The Condor Question, “What the world does not need is a flying Pleistocene radio station.”

The radio stations were glorious. The first thing you notice about free-flying condors is the noise they make. Stealth is not part of the skill set for birds who feed exclusively on carrion, especially when a three-meter wingspan is involved. The condor’s whoosh hints of angry bees, hives full of them, audible hundreds of meters away. These huge birds don’t “alight” when they land, they whomp, and they don’t always stick the landing.

The second thing you notice about free-flying condors is their unabashed curiosity. Any time I was out in the open I was aware of being watched. If I were to walk along an open ridge, I could count on having a condor circling close, swiveling its head to stare directly at me for the entire 360 degrees before whooshing off to its next engagement. The condor lacks any of the diffidence other raptors affect; hawks and eagles will soar over mountain-summiting humans without ever looking us in the eye, as if we were no more consequential than bedbugs.

Dick Smith wrote about this. Smith, parenthetically, is one of only three Californians to have a designated wilderness area named after him, the other two being John Muir and Ansel Adams. In his Condor Journal, which was excerpted in The Condor Question, Smith wrote, “Despite their seeming composure, condors are insatiably curious. They like to investigate. You may see one soaring high above you. All at once he’s larger and lower—just above your head, without seeming to have done anything to come down so quickly.” Smith goes on to speculate that this curiosity is what historically made the condor so easy to shoot.

I doubt that anyone who has spent significant amounts of time with condors could have missed this personality trait. Mike Wallace, who coordinates the California Condor Recovery Program, explains it from the scientist’s perspective: “Curiosity plays an important role in the life of scavengers. Condors must continually investigate the activity of other species if they are to be consistently successful at foraging.”

Guys like Wallace weren’t treated nicely in The Condor Question. The complaint is made early on that “something seems to happen, often, to men for whom wildlife becomes a profession.” Labeled “cage-breeders,” scientists advocating the recovery plan are chided for being overeager to resort to technology, and for succumbing to “romance for captive breeding.” The condors themselves are portrayed as victims of “the trauma engendered by hands-on biological technicians.” The accusation is made that “the USFWS and Audubon people have become so concerned with the problem of the bird that they have lost sight of what a bird is.”

I ended up spending a night on Mike Wallace’s couch, waiting for the proper permit, sharing the living room with two snoring dogs. Over the couch was a faded pencil sketch of a Northern Goshawk. I asked about it over breakfast. It turned out to be a sketch of a hawk Mike had trained during his years as a master falconer. I realized, over time, that Mike’s experience taming raptors was the flip side of his current project to prepare them for the wild. The protocols he developed for raising and releasing captive birds are the exact opposite of what one would do to domesticate a falcon.

Mike drove me down to the field station after breakfast. We took a zoo vehicle because he was concerned that my pickup wouldn’t be able to handle the rigors of the “road” in. Before meeting Mike I had studied his scientific papers, but during the seven-hour ride I got to know the man behind the keyboard. This man was all about raptors. He had researched turkey vultures for his master’s thesis, and for his doctoral dissertation had studied the Andean Condor. Here was a fellow in his early sixties, still with a full head of hair, whose entire career trajectory was about keeping the California Condor off the list of extinct North American birds.

When we finally got to the field station, snuggled into an old-growth stand of mixed conifer, David Brower’s words kept swirling around in my head: “A condor is five per cent feathers, flesh, blood, and bone. All the rest is place.” This is the place, I told myself.¡Perfecto! Of course, Brower also wrote, “That place requires space to nest in, to teach fledglings, to roost unmolested, to bathe and drink in, to find other condors in and not too many biologists, and to fly over wild and free.” The Sierra San Pedro Martir had all that, arguably, depending on how you defined “not too many biologists.”

Mike would leave the following day. Before he went I was assigned a spot out on a ridge under a Jeffries pine, nestled nearly out of sight behind a matched set of granite boulders. The precipice functioned as a condor highway, and my charge was to sit there and watch, day after day, and to record the numbers on the patagial tags I was able to scope, always keeping an eye out for the missing bird.

Have I mentioned that it was glorious? I’d spent the previous year as an apprentice hawk watcher with the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, trained not only to distinguish one distant species of raptor from another, but also to discern the age and gender of raptors whenever possible. But no amount of training with eagles, hawks, osprey, harriers, kites, and falcons prepared me for condors. These are the Harley Davidsons of the bird world: big, fast, noisy, and yet stable enough to cause a fellow to change his religion. If an airborne condor tends not to flap its wings much, that’s because it doesn’t have to—it owns the wind.

In his condor journal, Dick Smith wrote, “To sense the close passage of a traveling condor is an experience out of this world.” What disquiets me now is how close the condors came to being out of this world permanently. The conservation community was still disputing the condor question in 1987, debating the finer points of captive breeding until the population crashed and only twenty-two  California Condors remained on the planet. Remember, no one engaging in this debate wanted extinction. Those against the recovery plan were genuinely convinced of its “wrongheadedness,” as Anne and Paul Ehrlich had put it inthe book’s introduction. Well-meaning ornithologists genuinely felt that captive breeding was the problem, not the answer for Gymnogyps californianus. But birds with a theoretical sixty-year life expectancy kept dying young, largely because we didn’t know what was killing them in the wild.

Most of the science behind The Condor Question is based on the work of Carl Koford, who began studying condors in the field as part of an Audubon fellowship to assess population viability. Koford spent more than four hundred days with the condors prior to World War II, with a typical day being described on May 6, 1939, when Koford wrote: “I watched #1 nest from 7 a.m. until 6:15 p.m. & saw both birds in the nest in the afternoon & saw the chick too. The day was clear overhead with light breezes. I camped about 400 yards WSW of the nest as before.” (When it comes to scrutinizing field notes, sometimes historical ecology isn’t as exciting as you’d think.)

Central to the argument of The Condor Question is a 1979 interview Koford made shortly before his death. In it, he speculates that a ten-bird decline in the condor population “during the past dozen years” could have been caused by many factors, “including shooting, nest area disturbances, consumption of poisoned food, and seasonal food shortages.” Koford asserts that these factors can all be remediated without needing to capture the remaining population of condors. Koford’s concern about poisoned food is amplified by other authors in the book who cite concerns about a specific poison used in rodent control, sodium fluoroacetate. Although anecdotal evidence was presented about condors dying after consuming poisoned ground squirrels, none of these factors added up to the mortality that was taking place. Even if rodenticides could have been rectified instantly, it is doubtful that extinction could have been staved off.

Back in 1981 we didn’t know that significant condor mortality was being caused by the ingestion of lead bullet fragments. When hunters shoot animals such as deer, they usually target the chest area, hoping to hit the heart and/or lungs. Modern high-velocity hunting ammunition fragments on impact. After the animal dies the hunter will typically field dress it, removing the internal organs and leaving behind a “gut pile” prior to transporting the carcass. The viscera attract scavengers, who end up being poisoned by the lead fragments contained within.

The lead-poisoning connection was not made until after cage-bred condors were released back into the wild. The stark reality is that radio telemetry helped scientists find dead or dying condors so that lab work could be done on the blood to determine what was causing the problem. The science behind this was not published until 2006, seven years after the first captive-bred condors were introduced into the wild. Had the decision never been made to capture the remaining wild condors, they would most probably have perished by now, and “extinct” would have been the final word in the debate.

There is still a great deal we can learn by re-reading The Condor Question several decades after its initial publication. For example, we can learn that environmental righteousness is only an attitude, not an argument. On top of that, it would be worthwhile to realize how close environmental romanticism came to allowing a magnificent species to go extinct. Dick Smith wrote, “There is something unreasonable about a condor. The bird has to be comprehended, not analyzed.” That sounds really sweet until one realizes that what dying condors really need is to have their blood chemistry analyzed.

This is not to suggest that we shouldn’t approach Gymnogyps californianus contemplatively as well as analytically. One morning while en route to my field site, I came across a condor’s primary flight feather, one that appeared to have been recently molted. Not having a tape measure handy, I held the quill against my rib cage and extended my arm sideways to assess the feather’s length. It reached all the way to my knuckles. One feather! And yet, the most amazing thing about these birds isn’t their wingspan, it’s their lifespan.

Considered from the hindsight of 2015, when there are 432 condors alive, more than half of whom are free-flying birds, The Condor Question seems to have been infected as much by pessimism as acrimony. In one place it predicted that a bird emerging from captive breeding would be “a mangled facsimile of the original.” In another place it predicted that zoo-propagated birds will behave similarly to hatchery-raised trout that don’t know how to act like other trout, eating the wrong food in the wrong part of the stream. Kenneth Brower laments that “a released bird is only half a bird.”

There were indeed problems when the first zoo-propagated condors were released into the wild. In Arizona, several condors were killed by Golden Eagles until the eagles re-discovered condors not to be a threat. Other problems required more creativity to solve. When a condor was electrocuted after landing on a utility pole, imitation power poles that would provide a mild, harmless shock were introduced into the pre-release pens. The condors learned never to land on power poles. Problem solved.

A certain amount of “aversion training” takes place before condors are released into the wild. In essence, they are being trained not to trust Homo sapiens. In terms of longevity, it apparently benefits condors not to consider us a friendly species. I was requested, during my stint at the field station, to reinforce this training should the need arise, perhaps going as far as chucking a pine cone in a condor’s general direction if it approached too close. “Don’t treat them as if they’re endangered,” Mike Wallace counseled. The irony of this was not lost on me: here I was, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Studies and Sciences at a university that prides itself on fostering environmental compassion, being admonished not to let condors think I’m a nice guy.

The birds I observed in Sierra San Pedro Martir were not mangled facsimiles of condors, nor were they only half the birds they should have been. Yes, they still rely on conservation efforts, and they will need to be monitored, protected, and perhaps even coddled well into the future. But they are a vibrant community, learning as they go how to become wild creatures, teaching each other how condors are supposed to behave. Condors, after all, are smarter than trout.

Thanks to radio telemetry, we finally located the flying Pleistocene radio station for which we were searching. She had nested in an area so remote that even the latest technology couldn’t keep up with her, and I’m strangely encouraged by that. Her chick didn’t make it, unfortunately, but at this very minute there are four juvenile condors riding the updrafts of the Sierra San Pedro Martir who were born in the wild. More to come.

I left the field station impressed and inspired by the condors I’d met. They were more adaptable than I’d expected them to be, and less relict. I saw far more to indicate vitality than to portend senescence. I’m happy to report that the California Condor is not getting its feathers ruffled by such things as radio transmitters. Like most birds, they appear disengaged about existential issues such as extinction, preoccupied by the more immediate issues of feeding and breeding. Maybe it’s all the better that we humans are the only species who can comprehend extinction’s full tragedy. Or do we? I can only hope we learn from the condors’ resurgence and can use that resurgence as a testimony to the possibility of saving other species.

  • John Farnsworth

    John S. Farnsworth, PhD, writes and teaches widely in the environmental humanities. As Senior Lecturer in Environmental Studies and Sciences at Santa Clara University.

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