The Naked Vulture and the Thinking Ape
The campaign to rescue the condor has divided biologists into two bitterly opposed camps— those who emphasize captive breeding and those who would protect the bird in its natural environment
BY KENNETH BROWER
IT ARRIVES AS A GIANT, OVATE-ELLIPSOIDAL EGG OF the palest green or blue. The egg meets the planet with a small calcareous clink, for its nest is no nest at all, just the bare rock floor of some high cave, cleft, or pothole. Nudged gently by great beaks hooked for tearingcorpses, straddled by clawed feet the size of human hands, warmed by breast feathers as black as the nights outside the cave, the egg incubates. In close to sixty days, the tip of a new beak, smaller but hooked like the others, pips out into the world. The nostrils sample aromas much like those that greeted the first life on Earth. The nest of the California condor smells of ammonia and rock dust, and fishy.
The chick struggles free and sprawls on the rock, wet and bedraggled, the rarest of birds. Each condor hatched now, late in the twentieth century, is the most recent in a line that goes back to the Pleistocene age; each one stands a chance of being the very last of its kind.
The chick dries and expands into a yellowish ball of woolly down. It opens a brown eye. Its parents work shifts feeding it—squirrel regurgité, entrail of rabbit, nicely aged cuts of Hereford, deer, coyote, sheep. The down turns dark gray. The chick preens, bounds around the cave, hiccups mightily, pecks at eggshells, toys with molted feathers. It stretches its wings, refolds them, stretches them again. It fans them, sending small windstorms scurrying through the down and molted feathers and bone fragments in the cave. At seven or eight months, the young bird spreads the wings, now nine feet across, and pitches off the cliff in its first practice flights. It wavers away on the dry thermals of its home ridges, overcorrecting with its tail, sometimes flipping itself over in attempting turns. Upon North American land, no wings cast a larger shadow. When the juvenile leaves off its acrobatics, sets its wings, and soars, its emarginated primary feathers make a steady, vaguely musical whistling, audible sometimes half a mile away.
The brown eyes turn red. A ring around the base of the neck turns pink, then that color grows forward until it covers the neck entirely. The shaven skull, for which Gymnogyps, the “naked vulture,” is named, turns from dark gray to orange. The dark underside of each wing begins to show a long, mottled white triangle, the base more or less at the armpit, the apex near the wingtip. The whistling windsong of the primary feathers refines itself, becoming louder and more harmonious. The triangles turn pure white. The adult bird sails musically over its last hills as if on alabaster arms nailed to a black cross.
The genus Gymnogyps once ranged much of North America. Fossils of a Pleistocene species, G. amplus, a bird scarcely distinguishable from its successor, G. californianus, have been found in Mexico and Florida as well as in California, where its ample bones are plentiful in the La Brea tars, mixed in with those of mammoths, mastodons, short-faced bears, saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, atrocious lions, sloths, camels, bison, and other creatures of the megafauna on which condors then fed. Gymnogyps californianus itself once wandered far beyond the borders of its namesake state. Its bones have been discovered in Texas and New Mexico and Oregon. Lewis and Clark saw condors at the mouth of the Columbia River—the birds probably ranged as far north as British Columbia—and vaqueros encountered them far south in Baja California. Today the genus is confined to the dry grasslands of southcentral California, and only twenty to twenty-five condors remain.
The last condors are under surveillance, and many now have names. One is called the Lady of the Lake; she is thought to be a female separated from her mate. Her behavior, in the opinion of the condor watchers, is strange. She drops down sometimes to Lake Casitas, in southern California, where she was once seen nudging and rolling a Styrofoam cup. Another is Topa Topa, a sixteen-year resident of the Los Angeles Zoo and until last year the only California condor in captivity. There is the Santa Barbara Pair. There is the Mystery Pair, so named because their nesting site has never been discovered by the biologists attempting to rescue the species—the best thing that could have happened to the species and to the pair, in the opinion of some.
All condors are mystery birds, of course. How is it to perch on the brink of extinction? Does the condor, roosting in the dry, resinous heat of the interior chaparral, ever recollect a gust of salt air, a cool racial memory from the days when it fed on seals washed up on the beach? Probably not. But is there ever a malaise? As the condor population declines, so too does flock size: where in the 1940s men saw thirty condors on a carcass, in the 1900s they saw fifteen, and today we are lucky to see eight. Does a feeding condor, straightening and gazing around the sparse, dark-shouldered circle of its brethren, ever sense that there are somehow too few?
Does the condor miss its megafauna? When a condor feeds today on a large carcass, its habit is to stand with tarsi flat on the ground, clamp a stubborn piece of meat with its beak, and tug backward powerfully with its whole body, twenty consecutive jerks, sometimes—one or two jerks per second. Sometimes the meat rips free unexpectedly, and the condor stumbles backward. This must happen more often with a dead rabbit, or even with a dead sheep or Hereford, than it did with a dead mastodon. Does the condor of our unheroic times, stumbling backward, momentarily feel ridiculous? (In the 1930s, “racial senescence” was proposed as a possible cause of the condor’s decline, though that theory, applied to condors or to anything else, has never been well received by science. Could the cause be less senility and more along the lines of terminal chagrin?)
Why does the Lady of the Lake behave so strangely? What was her fascination with that Styrofoam cup?
The twenty-odd surviving condors, though the smallest of remnants, belong to a large fraternity. According to The Global 2000 Report to the President, commissioned by President Carter, the planet will lose between 500,000 and 2 million plant and animal species by the year 2000.
The California condor is one of the few species, in all the legions bound for extinction, to have caught the attention of human beings. The Condor Recovery Program, a joint effort of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Audubon Society, is the costliest effort of its kind in this country. In the next twenty to forty years, from $20 to $25 million may be spent on condors. The thinking ape’s campaign to rescue the naked vulture is of significance, then, not just to those two creatures but to all the other multitudes on this foundering ark. It is illuminating of the ape, and somewhat less so of the vulture, how that campaign so far has gone.
Debate over how to save the condor has divided the environmental community, setting the National Audubon Society against certain of its California chapters, and against Friends of the Earth and the Sierra Club, as well. It has divided generations of condorologists, setting the biotechnicians who are running the recovery program against the old naturalists who studied condors before them. The debate among biologists, indeed, has divided the living and the dead; one of the most insistent voices from the camp of the old naturalists belongs now to a ghost. The condor has sharpened the rivalries between the staffs of several zoos, each of which wants condors for captive breeding. The condor has spawned contrary theories as to what exactly a condor is. One candidate might be called Gymnogyps stomachus, a bird that wants nothing more than three squares a day and a warm place to roost. Another might be called Gymnogyps apotheosis, a bird not quite itself until it is airborne and soaring, a creature of the wind and distant horizons, a bird for which even the sight of man is anathema. Between those two are any number of intermediate condors. The debate over how to save the condor, if it can be summarized, has pitted those who would hold the bird in their hands against those who would hold it in their heads.
“The thing that has struck me is, the bird knows nothing about all this,” says Dr. Noel Snyder, of the USFWS. Dr. Snyder is the Frank Buck of the California condor, a man at the center of the controversy, but several of his opponents have had the same thought. Dr. Snyder stops, muses. “The bird, if anything, is a bit curious about man. Unlike, say, the golden eagle. Condors are curious. Maybe it’s because they’re carrion feeders, used to looking at herds to see if an animal is sick or dead.”
When man and condor meet today, if Dr. Snyder is correct, it is with a glance of mutual appraisal, each to see whether the other is yet extinct.
THE ZIMBABWEAN REBELS CAME OUT OF THE TREES carrying rifles and bazookas, half of them drunk. They stopped the ornithologists and their guides before they could enter the park, and threatened to confiscate their vehicles. When one of the guides began to argue, the rebels offered to take him into the bush and shoot him. The guide shut up.
“You imagine that when your number comes up, you’re going to think a lot of profound thoughts,” Noel Snyder told me recently, of his capture by African rebels in 1980. “But you don’t.”
Dr. Snyder and John Ogden, who together direct the Condor Research Center, had come to Africa to study analogous birds—lappet-faced vultures, Cape vultures, hooded vultures, white-backed vultures. Guiding them to GonaRe-Zhou Park were several African members of an outfit called the African Vulture Study Group, men with experience in capturing and handling those big birds.
“The civil war was still winding down,” Ogden explained in his mild Tennessee accent. “The war was technically over, but the rebel army, which was also the victorious army, was slow in disbanding. I think a lot of them were country boys who had never done anything very exciting in their lives, and they didn’t particularly want to go home to the farm. They were sitting around the countryside in little camps, bored to death. Mostly teenage kids dragging grenade launchers around in the dust.
“One of these camps was on the edge of the park, and we had to drive through it to get into the part of the park where we were trapping. The day we went in was the first day on duty for a new guy in charge of the camp. He had to demonstrate to his men that he was tough, and we were the first ones to come along. He trumped up some kind of accusation against us.”
Among the members of the Vulture Study Group, said Ogden, was a former officer in the Rhodesian Army, and this man stepped forward. By agreeing to each of the camp commandant’s accusations, the Rhodesian finally mollified the officer, and the vulture men were waved on. Relieved, but aware that after their eight days of trapping vultures they would again have to pass through the camp, they radioed for help, and another, somewhat less irregular unit of the rebel army came and arrested the camp commandant.
“Everything was apparently peaceful,” Ogden said. “Then, the night before we were supposed to come out, the paymaster came down to pay these rebel troops. They got mad at him and killed him—killed their own paymaster. And then they started shooting at each other, and by the next morning they’d killed thirteen of their own people.”
Ogden stopped and shook his head.
“So, for twenty buzzards in California,” I suggested, “you nearly bought the farm?”
“That’s right.” He smiled wryly. “I feel we should have had hazardous-duty pay on that job.”
JOHN CLIFTON OGDEN III IS A SENIOR STAFF SCIENTIST for the National Audubon Society. He and the small staff he co-directs at the Condor Research Center make up the full-time, working core of the Condor Recovery Program. For Ogden, as for his USFWS counterpart, Dr. Snyder, the year of their capture by Zimbabwean rebels was the first year of involvement with the program; in the three years since, neither man has worked on anything else. Their division of labor has Snyder in charge of captive-breeding fieldwork and Ogden in charge of radiotelemetry, the attachment of miniature radio transmitters to the wings of captured condors, which are then released and tracked for information on their daily habits and range. The two ornithologists are the same age, they dress similarly, and they both wear short, graying beards. Their opposition sometimes refers to them collectively as Snogden. “They’re such clones,” one anti-capturist told me, a little unfairly, for Dr. Snyder is in fact a bit burlier than Ogden. Below the neck, Snyder might be a logger—his wool shirt open, a dark thatch of hair there at the base of his throat—but he has an indoors sort of face. He speaks with a mannered softness and a careful, sometimes sibilant diction. Above the neck, Dr. Snyder is a birdwatcher.
A life in the field passes quickly, it would seem, for John Ogden needs a moment to calculate his age. “Oh, about . . . I must be forty-four.” He would look somewhat younger if not for the gray in his beard and the way his glasses have of slipping forward on his nose. His interest in birds goes back further than he can remember. When he was two, his mother has informed him, she would find him behind the house, trying to call crows into the back yard by screaming at them. Once, when he was home sick with the flu from grade school, she brought him a Peterson field guide from the library. Most of the birds in it were strange to him. “I sat by the window and flipped through the pages, and I picked out the bird I thought was the prettiest in the book. For some reason it really caught my eye. I looked out the window and there it was, a bay-breasted warbler.”
In high school, Ogden was a fanatical life-lister, and in college he had a banding permit and spent his time banding kestrels. As a research biologist, first at Everglades National Park, then with the Audubon Society in Florida, he placed more than a thousand wing tags on wood storks, banded between four and five hundred ospreys, and attached tiny radio transmitters to a number of crocodiles. Subtropical America flaps and slithers with creatures bearing John Ogden’s mark and beeping his signal. He often has been content, it should be said, simply to observe his wildlife. His paper “The Pink Pause, a Previously Undescribed Behavior by Roseate Spoonbills,” for example, suggests a good eye for birds, besides being one of the finer titles in all ornithology. But Ogden had not come to Africa to look. He had come to lay his hands on vultures.
“The two most important things we learned,” he told me of his visit to southern Africa, “was in handling a fair number of young birds, first in lappet-faced vulture nests and then in Cape vulture colonies, and in talking with other people who had done so.”
“Just learning to handle the birds?” I asked. “The way a surgeon would perfect his manual skill?”
“Yes. Birds respond differently to handling. Some of them are more easily stressed than others, and it’s important to know how vultures react as a group, worldwide. It wasn’t anything dramatically new, because we had already handled hundreds of birds—big birds like ospreys. I’ve handled several hundred ospreys. It was worthwhile and comforting to run through this whole exercise with vultures, just looking to see if there was anything different about them we should know.”
Skill at handling vultures was important, because the condor-recovery team has concentrated its efforts on captive breeding and radiotelemetry, techniques that require that the birds be trapped and tagged and handled. Critics complain that this “hands-on” biology diverts attention from the condor’s habitat, where the bird’s problems are occurring and where they must be solved. Is it a sensible use of funds, they ask, to junket to Africa and manipulate assorted vultures when the condor’s problem is mortality back home in California? The two most likely causes of condor mortality, the critics suggest, are shooting and poisoning, and they charge that the condor-recovery team has neglected both.
JOHN OGDEN AND NOEL SNYDER HAD A SPECIAL MANdate to learn about handling vultures because of an accident that occurred shortly before they left for Africa.
On June 30, 1980, Ogden, Snyder, and several colleagues hiked up to a nesting cliff in California’s San Rafael Wilderness. Two condor chicks had hatched that year—a promising development in a species that had ceased to reproduce in the wild, according to the USFWS in its arguments for captive breeding just two years before. After weighing and measuring the first chick at another nest site, the condor-recovery team had come here to weigh and measure this one.
(They had come without the required permission. At a permit hearing before the California Fish and Game Commission, Charles Fullerton, director of the California Department of Fish and Game, had told the team specifically that the chicks were not to be handled. Later, when it became public knowledge that the chicks had been handled, Fullerton suspended the team’s permit to work with the birds.)
The nesting ledge was seventy-five feet below the edge of the escarpment, reachable only by rope. The ornithologists stayed behind, and two climbers, Jeff Foott and Bill Lehman, rappelled to the nest. Neither Snyder nor Ogden could see inside the nest, but a team member, Hank Hamber, was watching through binoculars from an observation station, and he saw the chick duck back into the corner of its nest cavity as the rope slapped past the ledge. Foott, a wildlife photographer of note, filmed Lehman as he entered the nest. Lehman reported that this chick was larger than the first and showed greater feather development. (Bill Lehman had had no experience in handling raptors, and he was conscientious about keeping the ornithologists informed.) The chick backed into its corner, hissing and jabbing at Lehman with its beak. Darting one gloved hand, Lehman caught the bird by the head, then pulled it out of its corner with both hands. The chick did not regurgitate, as the first one had, he reported. It struggled more violently and bit harder. He attempted to stuff it upside down into the feed bag that had been used to weigh the first chick, but this chick proved too large. He stuffed the chick into a backpack, and weighed it in that—5,710 grams. Once during the weighing, and again during the wing measurements, he released the bird, which walked back to its corner and resumed its defensive posture for a minute or two before Lehman caught it again. Wingspan, 62.2 centimeters. Third primary feather, 11.57 centimeters.
To a layman watching Foott’s film, Lehman’s handling seems awfully rough. Ornithologists who have seen the film concur. “It was just dumb,” says Dr. Steve Herman, chairman of the Fish and Game Commission’s Condor Advisory Committee. “My seven-year-old daughter looked at that film in our living room and said, ‘Daddy, that man doesn’t know what he’s doing, does he?’ They approached the bird wrong, they held the bird wrong, they restrained the bird wrong.”
Lehman’s last measurement, thirty-five minutes after he entered the nest, was of the beak. He held the chick’s head across his knee, its jaws gaping and tongue protruding, and he set calipers between the hooked tip and the nostrils—5.24 centimeters. He released the bird a final time. Immediately its head began to wobble, and half a minute later it collapsed, apparently unconscious, on the ledge. Lehman sprinkled water on the chick’s head, thinking it might have suffered heat prostration. Checking for pulse and respiration, he could find neither. The chick was dead.
Autopsy revealed that the chick had been in perfect health—weight normal, no parasites or pesticide, it had been killed by the stress of handling. Its three separate captures, its struggles in the feed bag and the backpack, all the adrenalin pumped in its thirty-five minutes of fear, had overcome its heart.
“It was terrible,” Ogden remembers. “It was like waking up and finding that both your parents have been run over by a truck. We sat there for an hour, practically in shock, staring at each other.”
Well they might have stared. The condor-recovery team had just destroyed half that year’s reproductive output of condors. In a population then estimated at about thirty birds, the chick’s death was catastrophic. Had a proportionate error been made with Homo sapiens, then Ogden and Snyder would have wiped out 140 million people.
THE TALL REDWOODS OF MATHER GROVE ENCIRCLED an amphitheater of cement benches where Carl Koford’s family and colleagues had gathered to commemorate him. Dr. Koford is the ghost of this story. Until his death, in 1979, he was the world’s foremost authority on Gymnogyps californianus, and his book The California Condor remains the text of record on the subject.
“There was no big secret about Carl,” said his son Rolf, a zoologist, at the commemoration. “There was nothing that he kept hidden from other people. He was a very simple, straightforward person. There was a unity to his personality. The conservationist side of him was not separate from the scientist, was not separate from the father.”
“He was a keen observer of nature,” said Dr. David Wake, of Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. “He let the natural world speak to him; he was part of it. We look at his published work and we are overwhelmed by his sensitivity to the organisms—what he understood of the organisms.”
No human being has looked at condors harder or seen them more clearly. The condor was Koford’s first big project in what would become an illustrious career in field observation of wild animals. For three years of his youth, supported by an Audubon Society research fellowship and the University of California, Koford followed the condor around its mountain haunts and through the literature. He did some weighing and measuring, but mostly he just watched. He noticed that condor chicks were given to great hiccups, the force of each hic lifting the chick’s wings and sometimes turning its body around thirty degrees. He noticed that before and after fanning its wings, the chick sometimes held them extended for a few seconds. It was soaring, flapping, then soaring again, long before it ever left the ground. He noticed the smallest of condor details. He saw that when the skin of an adult bird was wrinkled, then drawn tight, the lines of the wrinkles remained for a time as purplish or reddish streaks. He spotted Haematosiphon inodora, the Mexican chicken bug, living by the hundreds in active nests and lingering by the dozens in nests long abandoned. He sniffed the bugs and found that they had the characteristic odor of bedbugs. He discovered that they produced numerous bites on a human being. Poking around like Holmes or Poirot in one nesting cave, he found the avian tick Argas reflexus living under a leaf of rock on the ceiling.
Koford listened. He heard the hiss or wheeze—”haaah,” he spelled it—of a newly hatched chick when it was mildly disturbed, and the “‘hiss-grunt,’ haaaaa-ungh ungh ungh,” of disturbed chicks one week old. “I heard as many as 27 grunts in a series,” he reported. “At the beginning of each series the grunts were loud and guttural; then they rose in pitch and decreased in volume. Often the breast of the chick pulsated as if the bird were grunting but no sounds were audible.” He heard the grunt of the adult, “like a suppressed human belch,” and the whistling roar, “like escaping steam,” that its wings made on diving, and the “muffled crash” of poor landings against roosting rocks.
Koford thought. He came to regret his own activities at condor nests, and recommended against human interference at nesting sites. “One man,” he wrote, “can keep a pair of condors from the egg all night or prevent the feeding of a chick tor an entire day merely by exposing himself within 500 yards of a nest for a few minutes at one or two critical times of the day.” He recommended against captive breeding. “Breeding condors in captivity should be attempted only after all efforts to maintain the natural population have failed. ... It is extremely doubtful that a condor raised by hand and lacking the experience gained by being raised in the wild could survive for long if released. Release of captive condors might well introduce zoo diseases into the wild population.
“The beauty of a California condor is in the magnificence of its soaring flight. A condor in a cage is uninspiring, pitiful, and ugly to one who has seen them soaring over the mountains. . . . Our objective should be to maintain and perhaps to increase the natural population of condors.”
From the advocates of captive breeding, the men now in combat with his shade, Koford gets mixed reviews.
“Koford did good work on condors,” says John Ogden. “His observations are some of the most meticulous, detailed, I’ve ever read. It’s nice to go back and read it—not just his book, but his original notes. Everything is there.”
Noel Snyder is less impressed.
“Koford said there were sixty birds, back at the time of his study,” Snyder told me, in Ventura, California, this spring. “That’s not sustainable when you look at the information. My own best guess, from Koford’s time, is close to two hundred birds. There is a lot of feeling that Koford was deliberately minimizing estimates of how many birds there were. This is hearsay, there’s no proof on this, but I’ve heard it from a number of people who go back to that time. Koford was very anxious to get a Sespe Condor Sanctuary, and it was convenient to be minimizing estimates.”
This was an interesting twist in the controversy, for Noel Snyder himself has been accused of just this manipulation—minimizing population estimates, in his case not to justify a sanctuary but to justify captive breeding.
“That number, two hundred,” I said. “That’s way above any number I’ve heard.”
“No, nobody puts it out,” Dr. Snyder agreed.
“Have you put it out?”
“No, and I’d just as soon not be quoted on it. Because I don’t think there’s firm enough information for one to say that sort of thing.”
“But from two hundred down to twenty, that’s interesting,” I said. “If that’s right . . .”
“I’m saying, if I had to make a guess on it,”Dr. Snyder interrupted. “All I’m saying is I think there were way more than sixty.”
In the view of Dr. Stanley Temple, of the University of Wisconsin, Koford was not so much devious as pathetic and confused. In The Auk, the journal of the American Ornithologists’ Union, Dr. Temple reviewed the Friends of the Earth book The Condor Question, which he found opinionated, narrow-sighted, oversimplified, contradictory, poorly informed, misleading, and inaccurate, and in which he detected Koford as “the central figure whose influence is felt throughout.” Of a Koford interview in the book, Dr. Temple says, “Shortly before his death, a terminally ill Koford comments on the condor controversy. Sadly, he contradicts many of his own published findings from 40 years earlier, gives highly inaccurate descriptions of subsequent research efforts, and perpetuates a condor mystique that is poorly based in fact.”
Not until near the end of the review does Dr. Temple reveal that he and his students have done comparative studies on South American condors. Nowhere does he say that those studies were under contract with the USFWS.
I myself met Koford just once, some months before his death, when he was still in good health. I found him a fit, graying, fine-featured man in a red-checked flannel shirt with holes frayed in the shoulder. I asked him about the USFWS plan to mark, equip with radios, and captive breed condors. “It’s absolutely unnecessary,” he said, “and probably harmful, and may wipe these birds out far sooner than would happen without interference.”
From a ground-floor office at Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, Koford led me briskly upstairs into a morgue of Navy-gray museum cases. From the case marked CATHARTIDAE, the family of the vultures (the name means “cleansers,” or, more literally, “purifiers”), he rolled out a condor tray. The three birds supine there were the first condors I had seen, and they looked gigantic. Koford let me test the sharp points of the talons and beaks. I hefted one bird and found it nearly weightless from the dessications of museum air and age. Reading the Victorian handscript on the tags attached to the great claws, I saw that all the specimens had been collected late in the last century or early in this one. I checked for any stink, but the feathers had no aroma now but that of napthalene.
Koford rolled out another tray and buried his fingers in the still-downy neck of a yearling bird. “The big mortality takes place in the first months out of the nest,”he said. “They’re such lousy fliers at first.” Then, backing down the narrow aisle between the tall museum cases, Dr. Koford lowered his head, hissed at me, and hit at me awkwardly with his wingtips.
When he had finished this demonstration of how young condors defend themselves in the nest, Koford picked up two flight feathers that lay loose on the tray. Each feather was more than two feet long. Holding a feather pointing outward in either hand, he extended his arms full length to demonstrate the condor’s nine-foot wingspan. Forgetting himself for a moment, he held that pose. Arms outspread on the aisle’s weak thermal of napthalene, he soared.
Now, under the redwoods at Koford’s memorial, his people stepped forward one at a time to remember him. Their recollections were humorous and untearful and fond. These were not, I thought, the recollections of the friends of a man hopelessly entangled in human affairs. They were the recollections of the friends of a man who once sat fortytwo days in a tree observing ground squirrels.
The conservationist Margaret Owings, who had worked with Koford on a census of California’s mountain lions, remembered “his quiet, persistent approach, his tracking of lions—one might say on moccasin feet,” and she concluded, “Nothing touched him but the simple truth.”
THE MOUNTAINS OF THE SECHURA PENINSULA WERE low, dry, deeply cut by canyons, and nearly uninhabited. John Ogden, who loves the tropics but prefers them wetter and greener, found the terrain bare, rocky, ugly. The peninsula’s low peaks sit isolated on the northern coast of Peru, separated from the true Andes by seventy-five miles of desert. “Hard-baked,” Ogden remembers. “Flattish, with a slight roll to it. Not a drop of vegetation.” Wild burros and goats lived in the mountains and at the fringes of the desert, died there, and became carrion. Cool air from the Pacific, rising up the thousandfoot slopes of the mountains, produced good updrafts for soaring. Above the summits of the peninsula sailed Vultur gryphus, the Andean condor.
The condors of the Andes are slightly larger than the condors of California. They look a little less like perfect servants of the Grim Reaper, their heads black where Gymnogyps californianus’s is orange, their neck ruffs a striking white instead of inky. Yet no member of the family Cathartidae resembles the California condor so closely. Ecologically, the two species are similar. Both nest in caves and on ledges, breed every other year, and lay a single egg. On the Sechura Peninsula, Andean condors feed on dead seals on the beach, just as California condors did before the proliferation of white men in North America.
Scientists from the University of Wisconsin, under contract with the USFWS, had chosen the peninsula for experiments in the release to the wild of captive, handreared Andean condors. Northern Peru was to be the dry run for southern California. “This setting seems ideal,” Dr. Stanley Temple wrote, in his proposal to the Office of Endangered Species of the USFWS. “It gives released condors plenty of opportunities to interact with wild condors; it ensures minimal human disturbance; its topography will encourage released birds to remain within an isolated mountain range.”
“It was not an isolated population at all,” says Ogden. “We didn’t learn what was really going on until we got the airplane down there.” While waiting for their plane, Ogden, Snyder, and a group of Temple’s University of Wisconsin colleagues trapped several wild Andean condors and outfitted them with miniaturized radio transmitters. The transmitters were button-shaped and solar-powered, with life expectancies of five or six years. They were attached surgically to the patagium—the fold of flesh in the “arm” of the bird. The condors were released a few days before the arrival of the plane that was to help in tracking them.
“We’d been standing on the tops of these mountains, getting the signal from out in the direction of the desert, and thinking the birds were only four or five miles out there. We got in the airplane and started following, and on the first day we flew close to a hundred miles before we finally caught up with the bird. He had flown all the way over to the Andes. We couldn’t believe it. Condors were crossing back and forth almost daily.
“It was just me, the pilot, and the co-pilot. Noel doesn’t fly well, and he stayed behind. I was doing the tracking. We were following that signal, and it kept going and kept going. We were so excited we were jumping up and down in the airplane.
“When we reached it, it was on the ground, behind a little goat farm. There was a dead goat lying several hundred yards behind this little stick shack—this guy living up in one of these little draws in the foothills of the Andes. Two or three hundred black vultures were down on that goat, and two condors.”
Radiotelemetry has often been misused or used trivially. In any number of studies, biologists have used telemetry simply to use telemetry. Its usefulness in the campaign to save the California condor is the subject of much debate.
“This telemetry is just spectacular,” says Ogden, the man in charge of telemetry in California. “Telemetry is showing us all kinds of stuff about where birds are coming to the ground to feed. We really have only four, five, six people, and we’ve got all that country. What telemetry is doing for us is showing us where that bird goes on the ground every day, month after month.”
David Phillips, of Friends of the Earth, is not impressed. “Ogden says, ‘Oh, radiotelemetry has opened up vast new things, it’s shown us many new areas.’ Now, wait a minute. Let’s see the data. Show us where telemetry has demonstrated the use of an area by condors, and where that area then has been protected. I don’t want to hear them say, ‘Now that we know where the birds are, we can protect them.’ I want to see them identify condor areas and get law-enforcement people to go in to protect those areas.”
But with the Andean condor, at least, it seems that telemetry really uncovered something new. It is a hard man, a mean environmentalist, who can’t feel a little of Ogden’s excitement: the hard-baked desert passing away beneath, the cool white summits of the Andes growing steadily taller ahead, the bird invisible but growing by the minute in everyone’s esteem, and then finally, behind a stick shack in the foothills, dark-shouldered, white-ruffed, and regal amid those hundreds of black vultures, head and shoulders above them, like high priests of Ra over a sacrificial offering of goat, two Andean condors, one of them Ogden’s bellwether.
In the following weeks, Ogden tracked several condors into the Andes and back again. He learned to interpret nuances of their radio signals. “When we were crossing the desert,” he says, by way of example, “we would hear ten or fifteen pulses, and then it would fade out. Then, two or three minutes later, we would hear ten or fifteen new beeps, and then it would fade out. What the bird was doing was flying around a mountain; circling on our side and behind, on our side and behind.” Another radio-tagged condor landed at the edge of a tar pit—the old, bad habit of Gymnogyps amplus, the fossil condor of California’s Pleistocene age. The modern bird got tar on its feathers, and its radio signal ceased moving about. The condor men tracked it down, recaptured it, cleaned it up, and got it flying again.
No condor’s signal ever paused in the middle of the desert. The condors never put down in that wasteland; they were always just passing over. But the desert was not entirely empty, as it happens. Neither the condors nor Ogden saw anything of interest there, but in the slight roll of the landscape lived xeric creatures and a ghost.
In the 1960s, Carl Koford and several of his students had conducted a survey of the coastal deserts of Peru. “Carl was always the first one up in the morning, always the last one to bed at night,” remembers one of those students, then just plain Raymond Huey, now Dr. Raymond Huey, of the University of Washington. “He always checked his trap lines several times at night. But he wasn’t compulsive in the field. He worked hard in the field simply because he really loved doing it. Every moment was a chance to learn something more about animals. He stayed up at night not because he felt compelled to do so but because he really wanted to see yet another owl, or another Caprimulgid.”
That summer with Koford, and the next summer without him, Huey studied lizards. He and another scientist undertook a revision of the geckoes in the genus Phyllodactylus (“leaf-toe,” so named for the leafy shape of the adhesive pads that tip the toes), and in their two summers in the Peruvian desert they discovered several new species. One they named for Koford.
In the Sechuran twilight, after the Andean condors had passed high and silent on their fixed wings, after Ogden’s plane had come buzzing along behind, when the desert was quiet again and the Southern stars came out, Ph yllodactylus kofordi emerged from hiding. With catlike vertical pupils, it scanned the dusk for yet another moth, another beetle. It ran the cooling desert on leafy toes—ii not exactly a ghost, then a namesake.
DAVID PHILLIPS, CARRYING A CARDBOARD BOX OF USFWS videotapes, turned a corner down in the catacombs of the Pacific Film Archive, in Berkeley, descended a stairway, then turned another corner. Phillips had been one of those at Carl Koford’s memorial, three and a half years before. He is wildlife-programs coordinator for Friends of the Earth, and a leader of the resistance to captive breeding of condors. Accompanying him today were three film-makers doing a condor documentary. Phillips had ordered the videotapes from the USFWS, and, to his surprise, they were routinely sent. He and the others had come here to view them. They passed through a projection room, walking behind a battery of giant projectors. They passed in file down hallways lined with ammunition for the projectors—film cans in racks against the walls and overflowing in rows along the floor. L’Age d’Or. Ivan the Terrible. My Night at Maud’s. Hiroshima Mon Amour. They entered a small screening room, set up a row of folding chairs, sat, and opened their notebooks. One of the filmmakers popped the first cassette into the video machine.
The tape showed condors soaring. There was sound but no narration, just the warbling of the wind in the microphone and an occasional bit of dialogue from the USFWS men working the camera.
A condor soared against clouds, then against blue.
A condor went into flex-glide: the dihedral angle of the wings decreased and became negative, the wrists flexed so that the long fingers of the primary feathers pointed backward; the condor lost altitude and gained speed. A flexgliding condor is dramatic, vaguely ominous, yet a condor descending is not the condor that causes the sharpest emotion in the human observer. A condor lifting moves us most, and happily, for man and bird, condors spend much more of their time in soaring than in coming down.
A condor came straight for the camera, primaries splayed, wide dark wings as steady as any plane’s. It tilted the broad fan of its tail downward on the right side, and instantly lifted away to its left and out of the frame.
David Phillips, watching, let out an odd keening sound, a high-pitched, long-drawn ”Uuuuuhhhhhh!”
Phillips is twenty-nine. His interest in wildlife began on family camping trips and with the Boy Scouts. “By the time high school came around,”he says, “I was interested in biology from the standpoint of being able to do something about it, rather than just to study it. I wanted to be able to effect some kind of change.” He went west, where the wildlife was, and earned a B.S. in environmental biology from Colorado College. “In college, I was seeing people with four-wheel-drive vehicles going around shooting the place up. I remember an owl hanging by one foot from a tree, shot to pieces; coyotes strung up on barbwire fences. It made me think, ‘Boy, so what if you know about an animal, and measure it, and know how many eggs it lays?’
“I’ve always liked the kind of biologist that is willing to step forward and become involved in what’s really happening. I had a couple of professors who were like that. Instead of just cloistering themselves and doing their research and maybe writing a paper or two, they would actually show up at a public hearing, or at a planning or zoning meeting.”
Paul Ehrlich is like that, in Phillips’s opinion. So are the Leopolds, Aldo and Starker. George Schaller. Carl Koford.
“I talked to Koford on the phone one day, and he told me there was this travesty going on in the Condor Recovery Program. He came into the office wearing blue jeans and a flannel shirt. I liked him. There are very few biologists willing to get outside the Good Old Boy network. He was willing to get involved in tough management questions.”
In the screening room, the scene changed, and the video camera was now pointing down over the grassy edge of a steep hill. No condors were visible, but one was down below on a carcass, apparently, for the voices of the USFWS men debated flushing it to another, more photographable carcass. “Better flush him before he gets full, or you’ll never get him over to that other one,” a voice said. The sequence ended as one man started down the hill to do so.
Phillips, watching the screen, groaned and shook his head. “I can’t believe they’d let that get on tape,” he said. “This photography could be considered a violation of the Endangered Species Act. It’s against the law to harass the birds in any way.”
Another tape went into the machine. This one showed a man in a parka kneeling alone on a brown grass hilltop, pointing a hand-held radio antenna first in one direction, then in another. The wind raced and buffeted through the grass of the hilltop and through the man’s beard. His enterprise, without narration, looked both dramatic and foolish. He might have been witching for water in the wrong direction.
“It’s like a scene from a Swedish movie,” said one of the film-makers. Everyone in the screening room laughed. No one here was sympathetic to radiotelemetry of condors. “Bergman,” agreed another of the film-makers.
A new tape went into the machine, and a condor chick appeared on the screen. David Phillips recognized it. “This is the first chick, the one they didn’t kill,” he said. The next scene showed John Ogden standing outside the nest, holding up a spring scale and weighing the chick. “That’s totally the wrong way to hold it!” Phillips shouted. “Look at how he’s holding it! He’s supposed to hold it by the ring.”
Ogden was holding the scale by its shank, not by the ring on top, as he should have.
Another tape. This one showed Noel Snyder and other members of the recovery team concealing a cannon net, then arming its charges for a test firing. “They’ve had a spectacular lack of success in catching anything,” narrated Phillips. “Down near Lake Casitas, they started a fire. It was very dry. Some turkey vultures came down, they fired off the net, and a spark set the grass on fire. A rancher down there told me they didn’t even have a shovel. Pump trucks came and they couldn’t contain it. It burned a couple of hundred acres. Finally the water bombers came and put it out.”
The videotape failed to show the detonation of the net, but it showed the aftermath. The camera followed Noel Snyder as he walked out into the area covered by the net and looked about him. “Missed completely,” he said. He scratched his head, first with one hand, then with the other.
“Scratching his head!” said Phillips. “Perfect.”
Another tape, this one shot in Peru. An Andean condor appeared on the screen, nearly filling the frame, and the film-makers grunted appreciatively. Soaring, the bird allowed its legs to dangle, as its northern cousin sometimes does. Then the scene changed, and a group of men were holding an Andean condor on the ground. Two men stretched out one long, black wing, and another man, with a device that seemed to be part pliers and part pizza cutter, prepared to affix a plastic wing-tag. He punched through the flesh at the forward edge of the bird’s wing, and the condor shuddered. Phillips and the film-makers winced, and someone groaned audibly.
A final tape. This one showed the arrival at the Los Angeles Zoo of the immature condor captured on August 13, 1982, the first bird trapped for zoo breeding. From the back of a panel truck, a group of men removed a large, streamlined box. Moving as gingerly as a bomb squad, they carried it away. “That’s the ‘sky kennel,’” said Phillips. “The progeny of the bird inside will not be released into the wild before the year 2000. Its offspring will be used to establish first one and then another breeding population.”
A house on stilts awaited the bird, and the zoo men carried the sky kennel up the ladder. They set it gently on the floor. While ornithologists and cameramen clustered in the doorway, one of the zoo men carefully opened the kennel. A hooked beak went for the man’s fingers. He snatched his hand away, grinning, and the beak withdrew into the box.
Slowly the beak emerged again. A flashbulb popped, and the beak jerked back.
David Phillips was leaning forward in his chair. “Make a break for it,” he urged the young condor. “It’s your last chance. You’ll never get back to the wild.”
“I THINK BASICALLY WE ARE DEALING WITH aesthetic opposition,” Noel Snyder says. “People who are repelled by the idea of condors interacting with man. I like the image of the condor as a wild creature too. Personally, I don’t find it aesthetically pleasing to see a radio on a condor. I think it’s an abomination. I look forward to the day when we don’t have to do that kind of thing. I don’t like the concept of captive breeding per se. I think it’s a bothersome concept. But I don’t think we have any choices now, unless we think that aesthetics are so important that we’d like to see the species go extinct. I think that there’s no choice but to have man interact with the species if it’s going to be pulled out of the fire.”
“That’s baloney,” David Phillips says. “Noel Snyder’s whole life has been handling birds, banding birds, collaring birds, following birds. He’s so goddamn dependent on that. . . . Look, we went down to this workshop he and Ogden were holding—this was before we got into an antagonistic position—and they were telling us how wonderful their radio towers were going to be. All the birds were going to be marked. They would know where they were at every moment, because they would have it rigged into a computer so the birds would appear as dots on a screen. And I said to them, ‘Yeah, you wouldn’t even have to go outside to find them.’ They said, ‘Yeah! Yeah! They’d be right there on the screen!’ Noel Snyder is a product of his environment and his training, and all his work has been heavily manipulative management. For him to say ‘I hate these radio collars’ is really kind of a joke. He likes to handle the birds. He’s a hands-on biologist.”
“I don’t really understand them,” John Ogden says, of the environmentalists who take Phillips’s position. “I guess some of it is philosophical. A little bit of it is evil. I think some people have lied. I think some people have been very Machiavellian.”
“The Condor Recovery Program was organized sixteen years ago,” says Eben McMillan, a seventy-five-year-old rancher from condor country, a former friend, colleague, and informant of Carl Koford’s. “At that time there were recommendations as to what should be done first. Factors leading to mortality in condors should be eliminated in relation to their importance. The first two things that the evidence seemed to point to were shooting and poisoning. And to this day those bastards—and that’s all you can say, you’ve got to call them something—to this day they have dodged around those things premeditatively. They don’t know any more today about condors, or about shooting or poisoning, than they did sixteen years ago.”
“We don’t know what the mortality problems are,” says Noel Snyder. “All we can hope to do is overwhelm them with reproductive success.”
“Captive breeding as an answer to excessive mortality makes no sense whatsoever,”David Phillips says. “They say, ‘We’re going to overwhelm them with reproductive success until we find out what the causes are; that gets us over the hump, and it gives us a margin to work with.’ Maybe so, if you could do that in a way that didn’t decimate the wild population. But if what you’re doing is taking birds out of the wild, then you’re not getting the wild population over any hump, you’re digging it into a deeper hole.”
“You’re going to face a tremendous threat from genetic problems when you get down too low,” says Snyder. “It’s not the last bird. You’re lost long before you get down to the last bird. That’s the concept I think people miss. Captive breeding is the sine qua non. The chances that we’re going to win it without captive breeding are too small to want to go that route. If you decide we need a captive population, and I think we should, then it makes no sense to do it in a half-assed manner. You’ve got to really do it, and you’ve got to do it fast if you’re going to get over the genetic problem.”
“Amos Eno, of the Office of Endangered Species, once told me, ‘The habitat is gone,’” Phillips says. “‘The best we can ever hope for is to produce enough condors to keep throwing them out there. We’re never going to be able to have a self-sustaining condor population.’ That’s where they’re corning from. If they end up with enough breedingpairs that they can keep throwing condors out into the wild, then why worry about hunting closures on Forest Service land, or off-road vehicles, or oil and gas leasing, or timber sales, or habitat acquisition? Why bother? You’ve got yourself out of all those problems. If the condors get killed, so what? You just produce more. Now, that’s not my idea of the way to manage wildlife. I like the idea of a selfsustaining wild population, and the management of human activities to allow them to live.”
“I think about power lines,” Snyder says, “and I think, Cripes, it’s got to be power lines. I think about lead, and I think, Geez, how can they survive all that lead? Then I think about hunters, and I think, God, what about the hunters? Every one of those is a good, strong possible cause of mortality. For us to put a major portion of our budget right now into studying one toxicant, as opposed to getting a captive population or doing a telemetry study, strikes us as foolish. Misspent funds. We’d like to do those toxicant studies, but the money doesn’t reach that far.”
“How difficult is it to do a systematic evaluation of food sources, and rigorous testing to see if they contain X, Y, or Z?” Phillips asks. “If you put your priorities on ten major suspected causes of mortality, and gave those $50,000 per year each, you’d approach what they’re spending on their capture program. For years we’ve wanted them to study the effects of Compound 1080 on turkey vultures—for years. They’ve dragged their feet on that.”
“Why all the interest in 1080?” asks Snyder. “You can study the toxicity of 1080 to vultures—great. Does that tell you that 1080 is killing the California condor? No. Because you do not know whether the California condor now is eating food that’s contaminated with 1080. I think there’s been an excessive interest in 1080. I fear much more the potential of lead poisoning. Condors are carrion feeders, and some carcasses contain lead, because people shoot things out there. We know from birds in captivity that you can kill New World vultures very readily by giving them carcasses contaminated by lead pellets.”
“Don’t move them to the L.A. Zoo, then,” says Phillips. “Topa Topa contains considerably more lead than any wild bird ever.”
IT WAS A COOL, BRIGHT DAY IN LATE SEPTEMBER, AND twenty human beings had gathered along the summit of Mount Pinos, most of them wearing parkas against a brisk wind. Below, a badlands of broken ridges stretched away to the west. To the east, dim with haze, was the southern end of California’s San Joaquin Valley, to the northwest the Carrizo Plain. It was all condor country. Everyone had binoculars and intermittently scanned the sky. Two spotting scopes had been set up on their tripods at the very summit. The tripods had a ceremonial look, I thought. We might have been one of those sects waiting stubbornly, on high ground, for the end of the world.
In fact we were several sects. John Ogden, of National Audubon and the condor-recovery team, stood on the mountaintop. So did Jerry Emory, former executive director of Golden Gate Audubon, and an opponent of the recovery team. The two men spoke from time to time, their conversation polite, only slightly strained. There were several others from either faction, but most of the gathering were rank-and-file birdwatchers, unaligned.
I am an impatient birdwatcher, myself. Several golden eagles appeared very distantly that morning, but no condors, and after several hours of waiting, I slipped away down the slope. I found a patch of needly ground within a cluster of gnarled Jeffrey pines. The trees cut off the wind, and the needles were warm. I dozed a while, then read a paperback, a Penguin William Blake.
Deep in the Blake, I heard sounds of excitement from the summit, and looked up from my book to see a condor passing just below me. It was an adult. I saw the reddish neck and head, and then the bird banked and showed the white triangles under its wings. It was the first living condor I had seen.
I returned to the summit. John Ogden and Jerry Emory stood side by side, watching through their binoculars, momentarily united. There was a mile of void behind the first bird—no distance at all for a condor—and then came an immature condor, its head dark, the white under its wings mottled with dark feathers, several of which fluttered steadily in the wind.
The two birds were large, clearly, but in that gulf of air there was nothing else for comparison. (On another day, in the foothills to the north, I would see a red-tailed hawk dive at a condor. The red-tailed, one of our biggest buteos, with a wingspread of four feet, beside the condor would look like a sparrow. It would look like a fighter plane strafing a bomber. But today, with my first two condors, the striking thing about the birds was the steadiness of their flight, and awareness of that came slowly.) The immature condor, flying straight away from me, seemed to stay large in my binoculars for an unnaturally long time. The wings tilted slightly once or twice, then returned to horizontal and never moved again, despite the strong wind that day. The air currents worked continually in the long fingers of the primary feathers, but the wings themselves were as fixed as the graduated horizon line below them in the binoculars. At the wingtips, the primaries splayed out, the index fingers pointing up above the planes of the wings, the small fingers pointing below, the others fanned out between. Then the condor seemed to grow small too fast. The spread fingers became just tassels at the wingtips. The wings began to tremble and break up, but the unsteadiness was in the intervening air, not in the bird.
“To soar, you have to have muscles,” says Dr. Roland Ross, emeritus professor of ornithology at California State University, Los Angeles, who began his study of condors in 1919. “You have to use the muscles. The young one builds up his muscles because his folks are up there, they’re coming in and he’s skittering around. Every meal that he gets comes out of the sky. Everything in his life is downhill; everything in his life is jumping into space and then coming back to be safe, to get home. If you don’t have those incentives, you have no reason to jump off, you have no reason to soar, and you have not developed these long, tendinous muscles that have to do with the intricate art of soaring. If the condor is a pig grown in a cage with garbage all his life, he’s a feathered pig. When you get three generations of feathered pigs, pigs is all they know how to be.”
“That’s a crock,” says Dr. Warren Thomas, director of the Los Angeles Zoo. “These people have a twisted emotional idea of captivity. This is not like Jack London or Born Free, where animals are adventure-seekers. Animals are creatures of habit. What they seek is a full belly and a safe place to live.”
THERE WERE FORTY-EIGHT PEOPLE IN THE LOS ANgeles auditorium—twice as many human beings in this one room as there were California condors in the world. I counted fourteen beards, and more plaid wool shirts than business suits. The four Fish and Game commissioners in attendance sat behind their microphones on the stage, looking weary or bored or irritated. The condor was the agenda item that had drawn the crowd, the discussion would last most of this day, March 3, 1983, and the commissioners had seen most of the faces in the audience many times before.
The anti-capturists included David Phillips, of Friends of the Earth; Mark Palmer, of the Sierra Club; Eben McMillan, the seventy-five-year-old rancher from Paso Robles; Eric Caine, a shoestore manager from Modesto, in the San Joaquin Valley, who has taught himself about condors. Representing the captive breeders were Dr. John Rodgers, of Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, in Maryland, one of the institutions that wants condors for captive breeding; Brian Walton, of the University of California Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group, another institution that wants condors; Dr. Warren Thomas, director of the Los Angeles Zoo, a third such institution; Mike Cunningham, of the Los Angeles Zoo, keeper of the condor called Topa Topa; Marcia Wilson Hobbs, president of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association; and Noel Snyder, of the USFWS. The officially unaligned included Professors Steve Herman, Daniel Botkin, and Daniel Goodman, of the Fish and Game Commission’s California Condor Advisory Committee. (The committee generally takes a position closer to that of the anti-capturists than to that of the captive breeders. The commission generally ignores the recommendations of the committee.)
Dr. Snyder and Mrs. Hobbs sat together. Mrs. Hobbs, a leading fund-raiser for the L. A. Zoo, is the daughter of the real-estate investor William A. Wilson, who is a member of the kitchen Cabinet and currently special envoy to the Vatican. Mrs. Hobbs herself was almost a White House appointee—to the chairmanship of the Marine Mammal Commission—until outcry from scientists and environmentalists forced the Reagan Administration to cancel the announcement. The law requires that members of the Marine Mammal Commission be “knowledgeable in the fields of marine ecology and resource management,” and Mrs. Hobbs, who has no training in science, was knowledgeable in neither. She has been effective, though, at lobbying in Washington for the captive-breeding program. In 1979, when the state designated the San Diego Zoo as the site for the breeding program, the Los Angeles Zoo was miffed. Mrs. Hobbs subsequently went to Washington and spoke with Secretary of the Interior James Watt and with various presidential advisers, and shortly thereafter the L.A. Zoo was designated as a second breeding site.
“She pulls all Noel Snyder’s strings,” one of Snyder’s opponents says of Mrs. Hobbs. “She’s going to get him the funding to carry on the project.” If it is true about strings, then Mrs. Hobbs had dropped them for the moment. When Dr. Snyder heard anti-capture testimony that he considered particularly egregious, he was allowed to slump forward in his chair and let his forehead rest on the seat back before him.
“We believe that the program now proposed would in all likelihood doom the wild condor population,” David Phillips testified, about Snyder’s plan.
“We’re not rushing into anything,” Mike Cunningham testified. “If we wait till there’s no hope for condors in the wild, then we’ve reached the point where there’s no hope for condors anyplace.”
“It is in the best interests of the bird to push the bird to its maximum potential,” Dr. Warren Thomas testified. “Take the first egg, allow the birds to double-clutch [to produce a second egg], if indeed they will. Take the second egg or the second nestling. We feel that it would be in the better interest of the wild population for each pair to at least hatch and rear that nestling to a point before we take it.”
Dr. Thomas’s notion of “pushing” a species that is already pushed to the brink—by shunting their offspring to his zoo—is extreme, and is not a notion shared by all of his faction. “I’m not a wild breeder type,” John Ogden said, when I asked him later about Dr. Thomas’s suggestion. “That’s Warren’s background in life. He’s a zoo man.”
But to anyone reading between the lines of the testimony that day, it became clear that the zoos are in the ascendancy and that something like Dr. Thomas’s modest proposal is in store for the condor.
The USFWS and the zoos are now planning three condor-breeding facilities, each with five pairs of birds, to be built with eggs taken from the wild and the progeny of birds in captivity. “It may be prudent to take additional free-flying condors into captivity, under certain conditions,” the USFWS says. Among those conditions are “the appearance of genetic anomalies in captive-produced progeny; breeding dysfunctions in captives already obtained, including disease and premature death; failure of forced pairings to result in viable matings.” The captive breeders have left themselves plenty of loopholes for further runs on the wild population.
“You still have the final say,” Dr. Thomas assured Fullerton and the commission in his testimony that day. “If we come to you for birds later, then hopefully we come to you with the rationale and the arguments that will show that this is an absolute necessity.”
Fullerton knew all about the rationale of the capture people, for it is his office through which they flow. They began in August of 1982, as the capture program got underway. The first nestling taken for captive breeding was a victim, the recovery team claimed, of parental neglect. The nest site was under constant surveillance. Every three or four days, the team would call Fullerton’s office, report that the parents were tardy in feeding the nestling, and request emergency permission to take it. Fullerton would say no, the parents would return and feed the nestling, the hungry cries of the recovery team would temporarily subside, and then, three or four days later, Fullerton would pick up his phone to hear those cries again—the parents were neglecting the nestling again and the team urgently requested emergency authorization to rescue it. Finally Fullerton granted permission, and the nestling was taken. It weighed thirteen pounds, an acceptable weight for a bird its age. It fattened up rapidly in the zoo. It proved to be male.
The second bird, flying though immature, was trapped on December 5. The Fish and Game Commission, mindful of the need to achieve a balanced sex ratio in the captive flock, had stipulated that if the captured bird was female, it would be kept as a mate for Topa Topa, the celibate sixteen-year resident of the L.A. Zoo. If it was male, it was to be released. The bird was to be kept at the capture site only long enough for sex determination.
USFWS videotapes show the capture of this bird. One man holds the powerful beak closed with both hands and pins the head to the ground. The brown eye flicks around the circle of men over it, showing white at the corners, and the nictitating membrane winks madly. Another man extends the bird’s left wing for the camera. He marvels at the length and breadth of it, then refolds it. Next the bird is on its back, and fingers are parting the down to reveal a patch of gray skin. The needle of a syringe goes in and draws a sample for blood-sexing.
The bird proved to be male, but terrible weather set in, the recovery team claimed, and releasing the condor would have been dangerous. For two days it sat on the ground in the sky kennel; then the zoo veterinarians, weighing it, determined that the condor had lost too much weight. It was taken to the L.A. Zoo, where it stayed for a week. The winds subsided, and the bird got up to weight, but the zoo veterinarians now thought the bird might have aspergillosis, a mold-fungus disease, and it was kept a little longer. The holidays came, and tests on the bird were delayed because no one wanted to be in the lab to do them. Finally, at a January 7 meeting of the commission, the recovery team petitioned for more condors and asked permission to keep the December 5 bird. It had already spent three weeks in captivity, they argued, and it might be dangerous now to release it to the wild. The request was granted, and the bird officially began its lifetime of captivity.
The rationales continued into the breeding season of spring, 1983.
Shortly before the March 3 meeting, the team took its first egg from the wild. The pair that had produced it left their old nest, found a new site, and produced a second egg. This was a demonstration of double-clutching, and, as such, a vindication for the recovery team, who had predicted that the California condor would double-clutch. Their opposition had steadfastly pointed out that the phenomenon had been observed only once in this species. The beauty of double-clutching, according to the zoo people and the team, is that it will allow the captive flock to be built “without penalty to the wild population.” In this prediction, the recovery team proved wrong.
The team followed the pair whose egg they had taken, found their new nest site, and kept the cave under observation. Soon they were reporting to Fullerton that the birds were behaving strangely. The male was nipping at the female in flight, harassing her, preventing her from getting back to the nest. The second egg was getting chilled, the team feared, and they requested emergency authorization to rescue it. For Fullerton, at his remove in the state capital, it was a difficult situation to assess. The pressure from the team was strong, he would say later, and it came in the course of a single day. He assented to the removal of the second egg.
USFWS film footage shows Noel Snyder liberating this egg. The cameraman down in the blind uses a very long telephoto lens, and the nesting cliff undulates in the heat waves of the intervening atmosphere. Snyder is almost to the cave entrance when the cameraman involuntarily tilts his camera upward. There, sailing along the cliff face, is a condor. The cameraman aims quickly down at Snyder again, but the bird sails on beside its shadow on the cliff, and for an instant man and bird are in the same frame. This is presumably the female that, according to the Research Center, has been neglecting her egg. She appears to be trying to return to it. Snyder enters the nest and exits a short time later with the satchel. He and the other man work their way down the cliff. They reach the foot of the cliff safely, and the last scene shows a helicopter flying the egg off over the chaparral.
This helicopter was not just transportation, according to the recovery team; it proved to be a useful behavior-modification tool as well. When, watching the film of the rescue of the egg, a puzzled Fish and Game commissioner, William Burke, asked about the supposedly negligent female flying past the cave entrance as Snyder is entering, he was told that the helicopter was responsible for her return. The noise of the machine’s arrival had “broken the cycle” of the male’s harassment, the team believed, allowing the female to return. A helicopter is so effective at this that just twenty minutes after Snyder departed from the nest, the female was sitting on the dummy egg he had left behind. (She was not to be left alone with her dummy egg and her illusions; the team later re-entered the nest and replaced the first dummy with a second filled with temperature sensors.)
This female and her mate have now lost four eggs in a row under the scrutiny of the recovery team: two eggs last year to accidents, two this year to men. The two eggs lost to accidents suggest, to the team, how poorly condors manage eggs when compared with men. That the team’s scrutiny itself could have had anything to do with the accidents last year, or with the pair’s erratic behavior this year, the team refuses to acknowledge.
The team entered the nest of a second breeding pair and took its first egg. The condors abandoned their nest, found another, and produced a second egg. This second egg was accidentally broken by the birds. To the team, this again suggested how inefficient condors are at hatching condors. That the human surveillance of this pair’s first nest, then the nest’s invasion, and then a hurried search by the condors for a second and perhaps less ideal site, could have had anything to do with the accident is a possibility scoffed at by the men of the team.
Charles Fullerton, the Fish and Game director, mindful that the Santa Barbara Pair were the last birds that could contribute offspring to the wild, recommended that their nest be left alone. The team pressed its case directly to the members of the Fish and Game Commission, who agreed in a telephone vote to allow the removal of the Santa Barbara egg. This egg was taken so late in the season, as the recovery team itself agrees, that the pair will probably not have time to recycle successfully.
The promise that double-clutching would not penalize the wild population has proved empty. Unless the Mystery Pair have produced an egg in their as yet undiscovered nest—if indeed they have a nest—no new condors will enter the wild population this year. A whole age-class will be missing from the wild. The three known breeding pairs will have produced four condors for zoo cages, none for the sky.
(Since this writing, the condors have confounded the capturists, the anti-capturists, and me. The second pair has triple-clutched, and are now raising their chick in the wild.)
Four to one is still not a good ratio. The Condor Recovery Program is a program badly out of balance. Its emphasis on captive breeding is fine for the zoos and the biotechnicians of the recovery team, but bad for wild condors. Captive breeding attacks the wrong problem. The condor’s troubles are not with reproduction. Condors are reproducing well in the wild, as even the USFWS now agrees. The condor’s trouble, all factions concur, is mortality in its range. The captive-breeding program, in the rush with which it is being implemented, threatens the survival of Gymnogyps californianus directly, by its removal of birds and eggs from the wild population and by its harassment of the wild birds left behind. (If the condor survives the recovery team’s unrelenting surveillance of its nests, the stress of losing egg after egg, the forced abandonment of old nests and the continual search for new, and the helicopters, and the shell games played with dummy eggs, and the radio collars, then it will have proved a tough old buzzard indeed.) Captive breeding threatens the condor indirectly, by diverting attention and funds from the bird’s true problems and from components of the larger program aimed at solving those problems. Like a fat, first-hatched eaglet that kills and eats its siblings, the captive-breeding program has pre-empted funds for acquisition of crucial lands, for hunter education, for law enforcement, and for poison studies, and nothing important is happening in any of those areas.
No one knows the exact causes of the condor’s decline, but there is little doubt about the general agency. When Lewis and Clark reached the Oregon coast at the beginning of the nineteenth century, they found condors plentiful. They shot one condor at the mouth of the Columbia in November of 1805, wounded and captured another in February of 1806, killed two more in March. The tightening of pale fingers on the triggers of fowling pieces, and variations on that theme, have led to the decline of the condor. Cannon nets, blood-sexing syringes, miniature radios, and all the other apparatus of hands-on biology seem too much like new wrinkles in the same old game. What condors and other endangered species need most from us is a little space and to be left alone. It is a radical proposition for Homo sapiens, but a bird in the bush is worth two in the hand.
THE EGG RESTED, A GIANT, OVATE ELLIPSOID, ON A floor of wire mesh, under the eye of a television camera in the San Diego Zoo. A door opened and a human hand reached in. It tapped the egg, turned it, tickled it with fingertips. These were approximations of those nudgings and rollings of the beaks of the parents. They were to let the egg know that there was life outside in the universe, and that the life awaited it. The hand withdrew and the door shut. Recorded sounds of African vultures played.
The door opened again. Hands reached in—a woman’s this time—and they lifted the egg from the mesh. The woman, grim of mien, a zoo emblem on one khaki shoulder, carried the egg like a vial of nitroglycerin down hallways and through doors, followed by zoo staff and cameramen. She weighed the egg. She candled it, turning it against an intense light and watching the embryo roll inside. The condor was having a brighter prenatal life, certainly, than it would ever have had in its dim cave. The woman returned the egg to its mesh floor.
Under the eye of the camera, the egg’s inhabitant began to pip out, and in time its small beak nodded weakly in the hole it had chipped. From time to time, a hand reached in and broke a few pieces of shell away, enlarging the hole, then set the egg down again.
The small beak, nodding at the entry hole it had pecked into the world, detected no aroma of ammonia or rock dust, or fishiness. There was light instead, the intense beam of a spotlight, fixed on the egg for the benefit of the camera.
The hands could not keep off the egg. They removed it a final time, and an obstetrical team of three women in khaki uniforms and surgical gloves went to work on it, one removing shards of shell with tweezers, another spraying the inhabitant with an atomizer of saline solution, a third swabbing it now and again with a red fluid from a tall plastic bottle. They delivered the chick by Caesarean peeling, and carried it to a glass incubator of the sort that receives premature humans.
The chick, named Sisquoc, was the first California condor ever hatched in captivity. The zoo and the recovery team have made much of the event, and Sisquoc’s arrival was wonderful, as is the arrival of any new creature. But the hatching was also sad. Sisquoc will always be a kind of simulacrum of a condor. The voices that welcomed the chick into the world were fake—recordings of an alien species from another continent. The parental eye was a camera. The chick’s natal smells were not of birdlime or chaparral but of alcohol and female human beings. The hookbeaked heads that now feed it are puppets made of wood and paint. Sisquoc’s little brother is a robot, a dummy egg packed with temperature sensors. If Sisquoc’s descendants someday return to the wild, that will lend a kind of nobility to the chick’s life and its sacrifice, but by no means is it certain that its descendants ever will.
Growing up, Sisquoc will stretch its wings and fan them. It will extend them, flap experimentally, then extend them again as it stands on the ground. Grown, the bird will elevate them half-opened each time it jumps down from its perch at feeding time. But it will never set them high above earth, and in the long fingers of the primaries, the wind will make no music.