The previous post to this blog, Extinct in the wild: news reports – part 1, concerned newspaper reports published the day after the “last wild” California condor was captured on 19 April 1987. This post looks at magazine articles published during the months following this critical event in the history of condors and humans.
A brief mention in the 25 April 1987 issue of Science News began:
It could be the title of a novel: The last of the wild condors.
This item ended:
Scientists suspect that the California condors have been dying in the wild because they have been inadvertently poisoned by lead bullets in the animal carcasses upon which they feed.
Thirty years later, lead continues to be a major threat to condors. (No author was credited for the Science News piece.)
U.S. News and World Report included “Caged: The Last Wild Condor” in its 4 May 1987 issue.
This article, by John S. Lang, begins:
And so, for the first time in 600,000 years, the skies are clear of the California condor. The last one to soar in the wild now roosts in a zoo…. Let history record that the freedom of this Ice Age relic ended at 10:15 a.m. (PDT) on Easter Sunday, April 19, 1987 …. Man had to put the bird in a cage, the experts decreed, to save it from the world.
And so the condor passes – at least from the open skies. Perhaps its absence will be temporary, just a blip in its venerable history. Perhaps it will never fly free again. Either way, let history also note that mankind thought it mattered.
The August 1987 issue of American Cage-Bird Magazine included a short item titled “Last Wild California Condor Captured for Breeding Program” (no author was credited). Here’s an excerpt that refers to the captured bird by his code name, AC-9:
After a brief quarantine, AC-9 joined 13 other birds at the [San Diego] wild animal park …. Although there have not yet been any successful matings of California condors in captivity, biologists believe that the [San Diego and Los Angeles zoo] programs offer the best, and possibly only, hope for preserving this endangered species.
Given that all condors were in captivity at the time this was written, it would seem that captive breeding was the only hope.
There was no hope in the May-June 1987 issue of Defenders, the magazine of Defenders of Wildlife. AC-9’s capture was noted with a small photograph of this bird in flight (by David Clendenen) and a short caption (by Elinor L. Horwitz):
AC9 GROUNDED. The last of the known California condors in the wild was netted on April 19 at a carcass bait and now is with others held for breeding in a San Diego animal park.
The magazine of the Zoological Society of San Diego, Zoonooz, carried Nancy Lemke’s “California Condors – a New Era” in its June 1987 issue. Here’s an excerpt:
Careful selection of a mate for AC9 is underway. AC8, his past consort, may appear to be a logical choice. However, … breeders would like the two to mate with other birds to broaden the gene pool of their offspring. AC8 is currently paired with AC6 at the Los Angeles Zoo. AC9 will have to wait two or three years before any of the available captive females is old enough to breed with him.
Roger L. Di Silvestro’s “Saga of AC-9, the Last Free Condor” in the July 1987 issue of Audubon was the most detail-rich of the articles considered here. For example:
Oddly enough, AC-9, the last wild condor that biologists put their hands to, was also the first they had touched in the era of modern condor research. That was seven years ago, at the very start of an intensive effort to save the giant vultures…. AC-9 was forty-five days old when biologists … picked him out of his nest on June 28th and took his measurements. Weight, 2320 grams; wingspan, 33.7 centimeters; and so on.
It is fitting that this article was accompanied by John James Audubon’s painting of the California condor (see: Are some bird species worth more than others?). That image was captioned “Now the skies are empty.”
The reason that I am considering Di Silvestro’s article at the end of this post is because of one especially-noteworthy sentence. These words capture how many, including those who supported AC-9’s capture, felt at the time:
For he had been the last of the wild condors, and his capture brought to an end the natural history of a species as old as the ice ages.
My hope is that, within a few decades, all the humans who care about California condors will not feel that the condors’ history is any less natural than that of species that have not experienced such an involved relationship with humans.