Saving the California Condor

'Condor: To the Brink and Back -- The Life and Times of One Giant Bird'
HarperCollins

The California condor is an impressive and ugly bird — with a bald, leathery head, red eyes and a big, razor-sharp beak. It's the largest living thing flying over North America — with a nearly 10-foot wingspan.

The condor nearly went extinct. Its numbers dwindled to just 22 birds in the wild by the 1980s. So all the wild birds were trapped and sent to zoos for breeding programs.

As a result, more than 140 condors have been released to the wild, wearing numbered ID tags and radio transmitters so researchers can track their movements.

Melissa Block talks to NPR science correspondent John Nielsen about his new book, Condor: To the Brink and Back — The Life and Times of One Giant Bird.

Excerpt: Condor: To the Brink and Back

The Worst Of Times

The pit traps used to catch the last wild condors looked like shallow graves. When Pete Bloom slid down into one and closed the small trap door, he entered a clammy earthen trench that was six feet long, two and a half feet wide, and approximately four feet deep. It was hard to move around down there without smashing your head on the support beams; not moving meant dealing with cramps that paralyzed your back, neck, and legs. Bloom said he often passed the time lying on his back next to the walkie-talkie, waiting for word that the last of the wild condors had arrived.

He liked it down there. He had to. In 1985, they were his office. "Typically I went into them before sunrise and came out an hour before sunset," he said. "Then often, I'd go back down into them the next day."

This is what the fight to save the California condor had come down to in 1987 — buried biologists waiting for the chance to leap up out of the ground and grab the last free-flying condor, ending an era that had lasted for at least ten million years.

Nobody in the condor program liked that image, and some absolutely loathed it. But the scientists who knew the condors best knew they'd run out of options. Something in the condor's habitat was poisoning the birds, and rumors that somebody was trying to kill them were all over the place. The scientists were warning that a reproductive emergency was at hand. Every last condor had to be caught and brought to zoos for captive breeding.

Bloom believed the arguments held moments of weakness. "I felt like the state executioner," he told me once. "But I knew we were doing the right thing, so that's what I focused on."

In 1987, Bloom didn't look like the kind of guy you'd want to leave your kids with: he was skinny to the point of scrawniness with wild brown hair and a beard, and strange-looking scars made by talons and beaks on his leathery face and hands. He had been raised about a hundred miles south in Orange County, California, where his father maintained helicopters at the local Marine base. When he was a kid, he started trapping red-tailed hawks near his house for the fun of it, and then he started fitting them with tags that helped researchers track their movements. Over the years he'd learned to trap all kinds of other raptors, using everything from cannon nets to wire mesh baited with mice. When Bloom joined the condor recovery team in the 1980s, he was known as one of the most accomplished and reliable trappers.

Packing for the pit traps was a ritual for Bloom. Into his black filthy briefcase always went one walkie-talkie; one set of binoculars; one small battery-operated ceiling fan; one bag of lunch with an extra-large water bottle; one piece of airtight Tupperware with a small roll of toilet paper inside; one lucky hunting knife; one dirty rug; and one 100-percent-cotton sleeping bag. Synthetic bags were out because they were too noisy. Coffee, deodorant, strong smelling foods, and bug sprays were also forbidden, even though the condors weren't thought to have a strong sense of smell. "They were avoiding us and we didn't know why," said Bloom. "I wasn't taking any chances."

The field crews dug at night when the condors were asleep. Usually it took a crew of six to build a trap from start to finish: three or four field biologists, one veterinarian, and one or two designated "master baiters," so named because it was their job to bolt the carcasses of stillborn calves to the ground in front of the trap. This job usually involved driving out to a local dairy and then wading through knee-deep pools of manure and urine to get the carcass, which was then hosed down, cleaned up, and moved to a freezer close to the trap. "Road-kill deer went in the freezer, too, if they were big enough," said Bloom. "The only thing we never used were the carcasses of animals shot and left behind by hunters."

When the trench was finished, it was reinforced with four-by-fours and covered by an inch-thick sheet of plywood. The trapdoor Bloom climbed in and out of was at the front of the structure; in the middle was a head-size hole covered by an upside-down wicker basket that was porous enough to see out of. When Bloom went in, the basket and the plywood were covered with dirt and bits of vegetation — in the end, it looked like a bump in the pasture.

Scavenging birds of every shape and size were quickly drawn to the carcasses — ravens, turkey vultures, black vultures, and golden eagles. When Bloom heard the birds hit the ground, he'd check the wicker viewing basket for black widow spiders, often squashing one or two beneath one of his boots. Then he'd push his head up through the hole in the plywood and peek at the mayhem taking place five feet in front of him. Sometimes Bloom saw a half dozen golden eagles fight for choice chunks of meat while another half dozen stood back waiting for an opening. Once he saw an eagle dive at least three hundred feet into the back of another large bird, knocking it senseless and clear of the spot the eagle wanted on the carcass.

"Ravens sometimes parted the grass in front of the basket with their beaks," said Bloom. "They would see my eyes looking at them, and back away like nothing had happened. I'm certain they knew I was there, they just couldn't believe it."

He could have reached out and grabbed any number of golden eagles by the legs: he'd done it dozens of times while working other jobs. But condors were another matter.

"Very cautious birds," he said. "Sometimes they'd fly over the carcass once and never come back, and other times they'd circle down and land on a dead branch near the top of a tree. They'd watch the other birds eat for hours and then turn around and leave.

That's what usually happened."

Bloom said it was easy to recognize the sound of an approaching condor: the whoosh that became a roar kept getting louder and louder until it ended with the thump of great big feet and the clatter of enormous wings. When the condors walked directly over the trap, Bloom could hear them breathing, their wheezing lungs sounding something like a winded child's. Looking through the basket at the carcass, he would see the smaller birds start flapping and scattering about, jumping out of the condor's path like peasants diving off the road at the approach of the king's carriage.

Condors were usually trapped by nets fired out of small cannons, but Bloom tried not to use them when he didn't have to. There was always the chance that one of the cannons would fall over and start a fire, or shoot too low and blow a hole in the bird. The guns might fail to fire all at once; plus, they required explosives. Finally, it was very hard to hide a cannon.

But the pits, if built properly, were undetectable, he said. From the air they blended in perfectly with the soil and the vegetation, and when the birds were on the ground, they did not notice the difference in terrain. "Eagles and condors on the ground look up and around for danger all the time," he said. "But they hardly ever look down for predators, and we used that to our advantage."

The trapping had gone slowly and fitfully, but by the end of 1986, there were only two condors left in the wild. Bloom caught one of them, a bird known officially as AC-5, on February 27. He remembered looking up and seeing the silhouette of the last remaining wild California condor set against the clear blue sky. That bird was Igor.

From Condor, Copyright © 2006 by John Nielsen. HarperCollins Publishers.

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