How an ugly bird came to own a writer

Dinosaurs disappeared from the earth but the bizarre, fascinating condor remained.

Condor: To the Brink and Back is a strange book about a strange bird by a strange writer. It is also an important book about an important bird by an important writer.

Lots of species show up on endangered lists as the ever-expanding human species and its demands on the environment push further into territory once considered wild. But perhaps no endangered species has ever gripped the human imagination in quite the way that the condor has.

Fascination with the condor is easy to understand. As National Public Radio environmental correspondent John Nielsen explains, "The California condor is a New World vulture with telescopic eyes, a razor-sharp beak and a wingspan of nearly 10 feet. Helicopter pilots says they've seen it soaring well above 10,000 feet. I have seen it glide for miles without ever bothering to flap."

The giant birds date back to the dinosaur era. But dinosaurs eventually vanished from the earth. Condors remained - although just barely.

Nielsen's book - strange because it is a mélange of investigative reporting, political tract, and personal essay, among other genres - explains how condors neared extinction, and how today there is fragile hope that the species will survive after all. While explaining, Nielsen introduces readers to the heroes and villains. (They are sometimes hard to distinguish because the condor debate is so convoluted.)

Some are nature lovers who labor to protect condors to the detriment of their work lives and private lives. Some are government bureaucrats. Some are real-estate developers.

Some could be you or me - after all, ordinary people who have never seen a condor become part of the drama by moving into suburbs that reduce the natural habitat and by unwittingly spreading toxic substances where condors feast.

At the core of the book is a conflict defining what it means to be human, circa 2006. Should humans care about saving giant flesh-eating vultures that are physically ugly by any standard?

Yes, Nielsen says: "These images vanish the instant the bird takes flight. You may think there's no chance you could ever give a damn about this bird, but take my word for it - once you see the condor soaring, it owns you."

One condor who came to own Nielsen is a female named the Matriarch. She came to his attention in the 1980s, when scientists were working mightily to capture the few condors still living in the wild.

Why? To protect them from human- produced toxins such as lead buckshot used by hunters. The lead resided in carcasses of various animals killed by human hunters; when condors later consumed the abandoned carcasses, the death dance would begin.

Catching a condor is extremely hard, as Nielsen explains in various passages found throughout his book. But the Matriarch finally found herself captured, then placed in the Los Angeles Zoo with a male condor named Igor. They produced babies.

A decade later, scientists felt confident that the Matriarch could survive in the wild again, so they released her.

The scientists guessed incorrectly. As Nielsen notes, "A few months later, the Matriarch had been blown away by a pig hunter who said he didn't know the bird with the giant wings was a California condor."

Nielsen has never quite recovered from that death. "I'm not the kind of guy who dedicates books to vultures," he says. "But if I were, this book would be for her."

Steve Weinberg is a director of the National Book Critics Circle.

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