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Last Chance for the Condor

March 23, 1987
March 23, 1987

Table of Contents
March 23, 1987

Figure Skating
The NCAAs
Davis Love III
Clippers
Condor
Hockey
Spotlight
Perspective
Point After

Last Chance for the Condor

With only one of the species left in the wild, a remarkable bird struggles for survival

By John Nielson

He's lying in wait beside the trap, staring at the carcass of a stillborn calf, talking to trackers on the radio, reading magazines. Then it happens. Peter Bloom always feels a chill at the arrival of a California condor. From 100 yards he hears a whistle of air, a sound that slowly builds to a roar. Next comes a heavy thud-thud and the clatter of enormous wings folding as the bird touches ground. Bloom hears its deep, even breath. It sounds a bit like a winded child.

This is an article from the March 23, 1987 issue Original Layout

Eventually he sees the condor through a tiny opening in the dirt-covered foxhole somewhere in south central California. It is a monster of a bird, the largest land bird in North America, with a wingspan almost four feet longer than the 5'9" Bloom is tall. It is jet-black except for a fleshy, reddish head, a vivid halo of red in the eyes and a pennant of long white feathers on the underside of each wing. This particular bird is the last free-flying member of a species with roots in the Pleistocene Epoch. It is known to condor watchers as Adult Condor-9.

"You get the feeling he knows something is up," says Bloom, a member of the five-man team that has stalked AC-9 for several months. "You can sense him looking around. He looks at every little detail, at the grass, at the bait carcass, at the eagles. He's very methodical. You get the impression he's listening."

He should be. Although this time AC-9 didn't come close enough for Bloom to grab him, someday soon Bloom or some other team member will rise out of a hole and grab AC-9 from behind, or fire a net that will trap the bird. The last wild condor will then be caged and driven to an isolated corner of the San Diego Zoo.

The capture of AC-9 might save the species, which has been on the brink of extinction for at least half a century, and it might not. All that's certain is that shortly after the bird is snared, it will pass into a scientific twilight zone of computerized gene-tracking, puppet-mothering and behavior modification.

Twenty-six California condors are now living in that world, hidden away at the Los Angeles and the San Diego Zoos. Most of them arrived as eggs. The rest were trapped and delivered in fiberglass containers. All are supposed to be released, though no one is sure when. No one is happy that these birds are in captivity, including the zoos and, least of all, Bloom. A relic of the Ice Age, the California condor can cover 150 miles in a day. It can ride a thermal wind for miles, seemingly without moving its wings. At other times it appears to hang in flight before suddenly diving to earth for a meal.

"Seeing a condor in the wild is unlike anything you can imagine," says Michael Wallace, the curator of birds at the Los Angeles Zoo. "It's eerie." What's also eerie is that after thousands of years in the wild the California condor will soon be visible to only a handful of scientists, its guardians in a last-ditch effort to save the species. To date, no condor has ever mated in a zoo, or laid a fertilized egg in a zoo.

Only a few species have come this close to extinction and survived, among them the whooping crane, the red wolf in North Carolina, the Arabian oryx in the Middle East, the Mauritius kestrel and the Puerto Rican parrot. "It's an ecological crapshoot, but we've got to go through with it," says Whitney Tilt, an endangered-species specialist employed by the National Audubon Society and a grudging supporter of captive-breeding proposals. "It's what you do when you just don't know, but you've got to do something fast."

At one time the condor ranged over most of western North America. Many of its contemporaries—such as mammoths and saber-toothed cats—disappeared centuries ago. By this decade, the condor's habitat had become limited to the foothills and mountains of the Sierra Madre and the Tehachapi, and to the coastal ranges of central and Southern California. It is a total area of around 11 million acres, 2 million of which are officially designated rangeland, including three condor sanctuaries.

In the late '30s, when the Audubon Society first studied the condor, probably no more than 100 condors were extant. Since then, the bird has fallen victim to a variety of natural and unnatural threats. Besides loss of habitat, these include witting and unwitting hunters, collectors of exotic eggs, power lines and oil sumps, lead-shot-filled carcasses and pesticides. In the '50s, oilmen seeking drilling rights in the midst of the condor's habitat went so far as to describe the bird's protected lands as a threat to U.S. forces in Korea. In the '60s, backers of a plan to build a dam and reservoir near one of the sanctuaries dismissed the condors as "flying garbage cans."

Battles over how to save the condor have raised difficult questions of conservation ethics and left scars at many wildlife organizations, including the Los Angeles and San Diego zoos, the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club and the Friends of the Earth. Historically the principals involved in the controversy have fallen into two camps. The hands-off forces until recently opposed almost all human intervention, besides that of protection of the bird's habitat. Otherwise, argued this group, this solitary scavenger would become domesticated to the point where it would be no more than a "feathered pig."

The hands-on camp maintained that the species would disappear unless it was forced to thrive and that it could not thrive until it was better understood. Although condors are thought to be hardy, their scarcity and solitary life-style have made them a biological mystery. For instance, scientists now realize that the bird lays eggs on the average of only once every two years.

For 50 years these two opposing factions fought tooth and nail at public hearings, in newspapers and in rumor campaigns. In the early '50s the San Diego Zoo secured a captive-breeding permit, only to see it revoked at the insistence of the Audubon Society and local conservationists. Hands-on people believe those permits might have helped immeasurably in the bird's fight for survival by providing a sufficient number of mature birds to prompt captive breeding. The opponents disagreed, noting among other things that there was no recorded instance of the bird breeding successfully in captivity. This circular argument assured that the acrimony would continue until one side caved in completely.

In 1980 the National Audubon Society, which at that point favored a hands-on approach, joined with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to set up the Condor Research Center to coordinate efforts to save the bird. The hands-off forces complained that they had been excluded from this scheme, which included tagging the birds, equipping them with tracking devices and visiting their nests.

The CRC's program also endured more than its share of public-relations fiascos. In 1980 a condor chick died in its nest while being measured, apparently of fright and rough handling. News that some of the human visitors had lacked the required permits to attempt such measurements provoked general outrage and a two-year freeze on any contact with the remaining wild condors. But the CRC eventually won approval to tag more condors in 1982 and the tagged birds soon were described as an invaluable source of breeding and nesting information. For example, scientists learned that condors are apparently capable of "double" and "triple clutchings" to replace eggs that have fallen from or been taken from nests.

Such new information has not eliminated the angst and antagonism. In particular, David Brower, the founder and former chairman of Friends of the Earth, says "the condor was destroyed in order to save it." He has challenged hands-on proposals at almost every turn, accusing the opposition of incompetence and shortsightedness. On occasion he has implied that zoos are interested in capturing condors so that they can eventually put the birds on display. However, no zoo has displayed a condor for at least 20 years, and both the San Diego and Los Angeles zoos, the two that are involved in the CRC project, deny such intentions.

What finally ended the argument was the fact that from the fall of 1984 to the end of 1985 one condor died of lead poisoning (after feeding on a buckshot-filled carcass) and five more disappeared from unknown causes. At the end of 1985, with only six birds still thought to exist in the wild, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced plans to capture the remaining birds. The Audubon Society sued to prevent the capture effort, effectively halting the work of the CRC, the agency it helped to create.

While the case was in the courts, condor AC-3 was found lying in a field, dying. The bird had been hit by a shotgun blast and was suffering from lead poisoning caused by the pellets. In addition, while feeding on a carcass, the bird had swallowed a bullet, which had paralyzed its digestive tract. The condor died on an operating table at the San Diego Zoo.

Marcia Hobbs, a fund-raiser for the Los Angeles Zoo, was enraged by the bird's death. The lawsuit and subsequent restraining order may have hampered attempts to save AC-3. According to Hobbs, the hands-off forces now had "blood on their hands," even though it wasn't clear that the bird had ever had a chance. The death of AC-3 was particularly chilling because her fertility had long given the bird special status among scientists. She was known to have produced five hatchlings.

The hands-on case has been further strengthened by recent developments that give at least faint hope of successful captive breeding. First, eggs have been taken from nests to zoos and their hatchlings successfully raised with the help of birdlike puppets. Adult condors have been trapped and tagged with electronic beepers to track their range and nesting habits. Advances have been reported in genetic studies and in raising the birds in captivity. Most encouraging is the news that seven Andean condors, the California birds' closest relatives, reared in captivity have been successfully restored to a flock of the birds living in the Peruvian wilds.

On the political front, Brower left Friends of the Earth for reasons unrelated to the condor controversy. In his absence the organization has given captive breeding qualified support. The Audubon Society also announced that it had resolved its differences with the CRC, which greatly reduces the chances of further legal action.

The last of the trapping permits was issued in September 1986. A condor-recovery team immediately began tracking the remaining three wild California condors with planes and trucks and waiting for them in foxholes. In December, Bloom caught the condor known as AC-2, grabbing the bird when it landed to eat in front of one of the traps. The two other condors eluded the team for the next two months. At times they confined themselves to canyons inaccessible to the trappers. At other times they were too skittish to catch when they approached the bait.

These two remaining wild condors, AC-5 and AC-9, had little in common except for a mate, which has since been placed in the San Diego Zoo. AC-5, known to some as Old Smudgepits, was old and aloof. For years, probably decades, he roamed the hills near Santa Barbara, nesting in sequoia trees and keeping his distance from signs of human life.

AC-9 was young and gregarious, and he has been known to condor-watchers since his hatching in 1980. AC-9 was the last condor to fledge in the wild and the first to be tagged with lithium-powered beepers. He seemed friendlier than the rest of his breed. Bloom says AC-9 was fascinated by condor-watchers, sometimes even seeming to buzz them.

A February snowstorm left both birds hungry. Their only potential meal was one near the trap. Both birds circled the site before noon, and they eventually landed in oak trees near the bait. AC-9 approached the carcass first, only to be chased away by AC-5. Old Smudgepits then rousted young AC-9 out of several oak trees before landing by the carcass. After shoving his way through a group of eagles who also were anticipating a free feed, Old Smudgepits began to eat.

From inside his foxhole Bloom detonated the net and then rushed out and held AC-5 until the rest of the team arrived. The tracking beeper was removed, AC-5 was loaded into a truck and the net was gathered and folded.

As Old Smudgepits began his trip toward benevolent captivity, AC-9 watched from his perch in an oak 40 yards away. Bloom had never seen a condor so inquisitive. "The truck was parked underneath him, but he never moved," said Bloom. "He never took his eyes off us. He might have been hungry, or curious. We left him sitting there, watching us drive away."

The trappers came back a week later, to dig new foxholes and wait.

PHOTONOEL SNYDER/USFWSOnce AC-9 (flying above) is caught, he will join the 26 condors who now live in zoos.PHOTOVAN WORMER/BRUCE COLEMAN[See caption above.]PHOTODAVID A. CLENDENEN/NASWith the aid of radio transmitters attached to an ailing AC-3, Bloom landed the bird...PHOTOJOHN ODGEN/NAS...but less than a month later it died, causing a furor among condor conservationists.PHOTOF.D. SCHMIDT/ZOOLOGICAL SOCIETY OF SAN DIEGOIn 1983 a chick named Sisquoc became the first condor hatched in captivity.PHOTOJESSE GRANTHAM/NASThis condor died of lead poisoning after feeding on a pellet-ridden carcass.