Barely 15 years ago, the California condor was nearly extinct. NPR environmental correspondent Nielsen tells the story of its recovery—such as it is.
During his 1960s youth in what was once prime condor country, the author never saw a single one of the birds. The condor was desperately rare; as far back as 1900, one expert estimated that only 12 were alive. Condors were remnants of an era before humans settled North America, when the carcasses of giant beasts provided bountiful meals. Nielsen alternates California history with the story of the condor protection and recovery movement, showing how development put pressure on the birds’ environment and how bird-lovers, scientists, farmers, developers and bureaucrats battled to decide the fate of the condor population. He describes legendary condor expert Carl Koford, who logged the first detailed observations of the birds from 1939 to 1946. He chronicles the swing of expert opinion from the belief that only complete freedom from human contact could save the species to the decision to capture all 27 living condors and breed them in zoos. The last free-born condor, a canny bird named Igor, was caged in 1987. To the scientists’ relief, the birds bred in captivity; the chicks were raised by puppets designed to imitate their parents’ behavior. Five years after Igor was captured, a pair of his offspring were set free. Since then, more than 100 birds, including Igor himself, have been released into the wilds of California. Nielsen combines good storytelling with a knack for detail in his coverage of the condor recovery program’s triumphs and setbacks, while showing just how fraught the process has been.
Well told story with an ambivalent ending reminding us that few of the factors leading to the condor’s near-extinction have changed.