LA Flash: Extinct in the Wild

From summer 1988 to the end of 1989, I was a volunteer with the California Condor Recovery Team. Still in college and freshly returned from rural Veracruz with the School for Field Studies, I was the kind of volunteer the team of field biologists was looking for. Someone to sit in a dark and dusty blind and take notes on birds who moved but a few times during the long hot days. While other team members broke trail and built wooden enclosures, I scribbled in field notebooks the crucial behaviors that I witnessed—such as when a giant fluffy gray chick cooled herself off by pooping on her own legs. Note taking wasn’t all I did over the course of my time with the program, but it was the activity for which I was most qualified.

At that time, the chicks in enclosures in the Los Padres National Forest were actually Andean condors. The Andeans are a nearly identical and slightly less endangered species that the program lead, Dr. Mike Wallace, had spent years tracking through their native Andes Mountains. His findings proved the Andean birds would be proper surrogates for their northern relatives. Zoos across the US had contributed these particular chicks to the experiment.

(Sorry, yes. That is a stillborn calf in the photo.) Condors fill a critical ecological niche by scavenging carcasses. In addition to being the largest bird in North America and an important symbol to many native American tribes, they are innately equipped to rip into dead bodies and make a meal where others refuse to tread. In late ‘80s pop culture terms, their tendency to start from the back encouraged our nickname for them: Butthole Surfers. 

Most Friday nights during that year and a half, a team member would meet me in a grocery store parking lot in Fillmore and drive me up to the program’s donated ranch house in the mountains. They had hooked up a generator and we would cook dinner and watch TV together as they planned out the weekend’s goals. Even though the fridge and freezers were filled with lab rats that we minced for the chicks, we managed to put together a nice Thanksgiving meal once.

Some of the current employees had been part of the effort of bringing all the remaining California birds in from the wild in the years leading up to the experiment with the Andeans. By the time I got there, there were no California birds left in the wild. They had all been trapped and split into two populations at the Los Angeles and San Diego zoos. Purists considered them doomed. The California Condor was extinct in the wild, and that meant the end of the species.

But our team plugged ahead with the next phase of the experiment—treating these Andean chicks as if they were the California ones who would, with any luck at all, be hatching from the formerly wild pairs who now had not much else to do but breed in their zoo habitats. In addition to Mike there were 4 men and one woman on the team. She was small like me but able to carry a 75-pound backpack up a mountain, and she was the toughest woman I had ever met. These days, she’s a brilliant artist in Ojai. All the scientists on the team seemed born to do what they were doing. Themselves innately equipped to drive all-terrain vehicles, chop wood, build bird enclosures, and clear trail in areas they told me only a handful of European-descenters had ever traversed.

I felt like a surrogate Andean bird—only I was a surrogate for a scientist.

At first. But when they saw me struggling, the other team members went out of their way to guide me. One guy saw my look of terror when I was handed a telemetry antenna shortly after the chicks had been released from their enclosures. I’d been given the basics, but he taught me to slow down as I turned the antenna and listen for the slight increase in the volume of pulsing thuds. As reward for my note taking, Mike sometimes took me along to explore the back country. He had a sly sense of humor. When it was getting dark and time for us to return to the ranch house, he would pretend he didn’t know how to get back. So as not to embarrass myself, I learned to memorize my way going in.

These days, I use precious few of the skills I picked up then. My mind can’t reproduce the sound of our pulsing telemetry, but I remember how I felt when I first distinguished serious thuds from all the background thudding—and I looked through the binoculars to spot a bird on a cliff in the distance. I still turn around on a trail to see what it will look like going the other direction. I tend to memorize landmarks—even in a parking lot.

Most of all, I try to remember the quiet stillness of watching the giant chicks. I hope my notes weren’t embarrassing descriptions that should’ve been contained in personal journals, but they probably were. I can still conjure the birds’ smell. Dried blood and dusty feathers with a mustiness that will make you sneeze. They groomed, they fondled each other with their naked gray beaks. All of them were female—to prevent breeding once they were released. We did our best to hide from them while we tossed them a carcass. I don’t suppose they knew I was in that blind; signs of humans stayed in their background. My favorite blind was a shack built into rock. There were wooden seats from which I could comfortably watch out a tiny darkened window as I took my notes. To keep from falling asleep I would step out the back door and drink coffee from my thermos, watching the sun rise over the mountains, pretending, of course, that the blind was my tiny house.

I try to remember how it felt to play a small role in such a grand, ambitious plan. One that continues to progress slowly through the decades. The California Condor is one of the greatest conservation success stories, a story that technically began with extinction. Though improbable, it was reasonable. At every step, the outcomes just outweighed the risks.

On a day when I’m having trouble parking on the busy street where I live, and in a world where climate change threatens every living species, I ask myself if I squandered the teachings of those earnest young biologists. Part of me regrets not sticking with it. Other goals beckoned like more desserts to be sampled. My empathy and emotionalism didn’t always gel with the practicality and professional distance required by a good field biologist. Early on, despite how exciting and important it felt, I understood that this career was not a natural choice for me.

The quiet stillness I learned—not just inside an empty ranch house or a lonely bird blind, but the stillness I discovered inside my own mind—has served me well through turbulent times. Because it is only in that silence that you see the larger picture. The one that starts from bleak nothingness and builds. Not with quick fixes but with hard work, meticulous planning, and a hope that things can someday be different.

USFWS California Condor

LA Zoo California Condor

San Diego Zoo California Condor

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