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Return of the Condor: The Race to Save Our Largest Bird from Extinction.

Return of the Condor: The Race to Save Our Largest Bird from Extinction. By John Moir. 2006. The Lyons Press. (ISBN 1592289495). 272 pp. Hardcover. $24.95.

Return of the Condor is a contemporary and compelling story of species preservation that is both well-documented and told with tantalizing suspense that makes the book a fast read. Author John Moir endears the reader to this giant bird that poops on its legs (to cool its large body, which is necessary as its current range includes the hot deserts, mesas, and canyons of California and Arizona). At the book's end are appendices listing sites to view condors, complete with driving directions and condor Web sites to bring the condor to the classroom and continue to partner the audience with this dramatic story. Also in the book are color photographs of the condor in flight and newly hatched chicks that are part of the recovery program that, since its implementation in the 1980s, has seen an increase of the wild population from 20 to 150 birds.

Most of what became the guide to breeding in captivity was amassed by "proxy" since most species of new world vultures (like the common turkey vulture) present similar behaviors. It was discovered that condors can indeed breed in captivity and captured wild birds proved invaluable mentors for hatchlings to ensure the chicks develop condor social order. Adult Condor 9 (AC9) was seven-years-old and the last wild condor captured in 1987 (when the condor population numbered 27) for the recovery program, served 15 years as condor mentor, and was released, complete with wing tags and radio transmitters, in May of 2002.

That the Condor Recovery Program achieved an established population of free birds was unlikely as the population was dangerously depleted, and there existed an intense controversy between those who saw man as "culpable for the condor's plight" versus those who felt the condor should "die a death with dignity."
 The bird came to be seen as a mystical creature representing a
 simpler, more pristine existence. Some argued it was better to let
 the condor die a death with dignity then to suffer the
 manipulations of scientists. Environmentalist Kenneth Brower wrote,
 "If it is time for the condor to [become extinct], it should go
 unburdened with radio transmitters."

At one time, the condor's range was the entire continent, but egg collecting, hunting, and pressure applied by man did great harm to the species. Legislation passed in California in 1905 made it illegal to kill condors or collect their eggs. By the 1930s, the Audubon Society sponsored a study of this troubled population and awarded a three-year fellowship to Carl Koford, then a Berkeley graduate student, who would begin the first scientific study of the California condor in the Hopper Mountain area. Koford dissented against proposals to capture condors and argued that this compromised population could not afford to lose any members. By the 1940s, the San Diego Zoo developed a captive breeding program called "multiple clutching" that tricked the birds into laying multiple eggs after removal of the first laid egg so that up to four times the normal rate of eggs could be produced.

Jan Hamber, a condor biologist who tracked AC9 since this male bird was a young chick in its nest in the wild in 1980s, shared the highs and lows of preserving this endangered species in this toxic world. Ingestion of lead shot through their diet of carrion can elevate blood lead levels, resulting in paralysis of the digestive system leading to a slow death of starvation. Once this process was understood, a chelation procedure was employed to remove the lead from the bodies of condors before permanent damage to digestive nerve tissue occurred, but this information could only be gained by trapping birds and taking blood samples. Project Gutpile, a group dedicated to educating the public, and especially hunters, about the dangers of lead, show safer alternatives to lead shot. Condor chicks further face problems with micro trash that is ingested by parents and regurgitated along with the parental feedings into the mouths of hungry chicks. Maintenance of released birds occurs though supplemental feedings of slaughtered calves. Careful monitoring of released birds through radio signals and field studies support the work begun in the "condorminiums" of the recovery program site. Prior to release, condors receive power pole aversion training to prevent death from power lines.

Moir writes about the sixth extinction driven by man. Unlike the previous five extinctions that had natural causes, the current extinction is the result of over-exploitation of natural resources resulting in the current loss of biodiversity. Moir writes, "Success with the condor, once a long-shot gamble now largely rests on political negotiations." Moir gained information from field work as well as visits to collections of condors in natural history museums.

The documentation of text book lessons from current situations merits five frogs for this book. Educators benefit from the first-hand account of the challenges species face to survive as extinctions occur at an alarming rate. Students can debate as opposing sides in the recovery of the condor.

Sharon Cornwall

Science Chair

Little Flower Catholic High School for Girls

Philadelphia, PA
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Author:Cornwall, Sharon
Publication:The American Biology Teacher
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 1, 2007
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