The California condor
has been described as a bird
"with one wing in the grave."
Flying on wings nearly ten feet wide from tip to tip, these birds thrived on the carcasses of animals like woolly mammoths. Then, as humans began dramatically reshaping North America, the continent's largest flying land bird started disappearing. By the beginning of the twentieth century, extinction seemed inevitable.
But small groups of passionate individuals refused to allow the condor to fade away, even as they fought over how and why the bird was to be saved. Scientists, farmers, developers, bird lovers, and government bureaucrats argued bitterly and often, in the process injuring one another and the species they were trying to save. In the late 1980s, the federal government made a wrenching decision -- the last remaining wild condors would be caught and taken to a pair of zoos, where they would be encouraged to breed with other captive condors.
Livid critics called the plan a recipe for extinction. After the zoo-based populations soared, the condors were released in the mountains of south-central California, and then into the Grand Canyon, Big Sur, and Baja California. Today the giant birds are nowhere near extinct.
The giant bird with "one wing in the grave" appears to be recovering, even as the wildlands it needs keep disappearing. But the story of this bird is more than the story of a vulture with a giant wingspan -- it is also the story of a wild and giant state that has become crowded and small, and of the behind-the-scenes dramas that have shaped the environmental movement. As told by John Nielsen, an environmental journalist and a native Californian, this is a fascinating tale of survival.
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
An environment correspondent for National Public Radio, John Nielsen specializes in stories about endangered species and changes to the natural landscape. He lives in Washington, D.C.From Publishers Weekly:
NPR's environment correspondent, Nielsen, writes, "The condor is a rat with ten-foot wings," adding a half-page later that no matter how you try to get rid of it, "one day it will stand, spread its giant wings, lean into the wind, and own you." The awesome, ancient creature has been teased back from the brink of extinction since the 1970s, as Nielsen describes, by a controversial captive breeding program that has nurtured the population from around 20 to over 200. Via an unfortunately stuttering time line, Nielsen focuses on the process and players in the $20-million California Condor Recovery program, describing the infighting in the scientific and environmental communities, at war about whether a "hands on" or a "hands off" approach will work best. Provocative questions environmentalists raise include whether the very nature of the bird is sacrificed by captivity. Nielsen gives these concerns some time, but is most entranced by the hazards and pleasures of working with these birds; he's at his best describing scientists in the field and the birds themselves. One is left with the fledgling hope that the process of trial and error will indeed work out for the condors. 16 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW.
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