MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel. When the summer wildfires tore through California, they scorched the territory of one of the largest and rarest birds in the world. Two wild California condors were killed in the fires. And in Big Sur, a condor sanctuary which raises the birds was burned down. Eight young condors were airlifted out of the sanctuary by helicopter. From member station KQED, David Gorn reports on the fate of those condors and the sanctuary.
DAVID GORN: Way up at the Ventana Wilderness Condor Sanctuary, you're so high above Big Sur and the California coast that the wispy cloud layer is below you. See, condors like to perch as high as possible, and that's where the sanctuary sits, at least what's left of it. Program director Kelly Sorenson is wading through the burned-out wreckage.
Mr. KELLY SORENSON (Executive Director, Ventana Wilderness Condor Sanctuary): Back here was an observation blind and a catch pen. This was big enough that we could hold about 20 condors at once.
GORN: It's hard to believe that this pile of charred rubbish used to be an aviary.
Mr. SORENSON: And now it's just twisted metal and ash, pieces of hardware sticking out, a whole lot of debris that needs to be cleaned up because we're going to rebuild in the same spot.
GORN: Just two decades ago, California condors were so close to extinction, there were only nine of them flying free in the world. Now zoo breeding programs have raised that total to about 300 birds, and sanctuaries have introduced about half of those into the wild. The California condor is still federally listed as an endangered species, but it turns out there are a lot of fans of the ugly faced scavengers with the giant nine-foot wing spans.
Mr. DANIEL GEORGE (Condor Program Manager, Pinnacles National Monument): I like to think of them as elegantly grotesque.
GORN: That's biologist Daniel George. He's at Pinnacles National Monument where the eight rescued condors were taken after the fire.
(Soundbite of iron cages opening)
GORN: Right now, he's up at the new condor aviary trying to round up one of the heavy, black, reluctant birds, which is easier said than done.
(Soundbite of scuffle)
Mr. GEORGE: Let me try to get a few to fly over there.
Unidentified Woman: All right.
GORN: Three condor specialists armed with large nets and even a bright-blue pool skimmer are trying to catch a condor. A couple of fun condor facts: Condors feed on dead animals, so their holding pen doesn't smell so good. And the only smell worse than condor food is condor poop. And when condors are frightened, as they are right now, they poop.
(Soundbite of scuffle)
Unidentified Man: They don't look like they cooperating with you.
GORN: When biologists do finally capture one of these birds, they attach a radio tracking device to each wing. It's a little traumatic for the condors, but it's what has to happen before they can be released into the wild. And that's the ultimate goal, Daniel George says, to reestablish the condors so biologists don't have to do this anymore. Back at Big Sur, Kelly Sorenson is proudly pointing out a condor tagged 444.
Mr. SORENSON: There's a condor in this ponderosa pine tree, about two-thirds of the way up. He's moving around there. Do you see him?
GORN: It is the only condor around here to be born in a nest rather than in a zoo. It's an emblem to Sorenson of the success he's always wished for the condor recovery effort.
Mr. SORENSON: I mean, I even thought when we first got started that there was not much hope. But I did it anyway because I thought, well, there's some hope, you know.
GORN: Sorenson says there are now 49 condors roaming between Pinnacles and the Big Sur coast, and that's because this week two of the eight condors that were rescued from the Ventana Sanctuary were released to the wild. And the other six will join them over the next month. For NPR News, I'm David Gorn.