THE HISTORY OF THE CALIFORNIA CONDOR

[CONDENSED VERSION]

Sespe4-1973

NOTE: A version of this first appeared as the“coda” to“Nine Feet from Tip to Tip: the California Condor Through History” (Symbios 2012).

As history, I find the story of the California condors fascinating. They saw the end of the Age of Mammals, and were given a place in the myths and traditions of the earliest known people on the West Coast of America. They viewed the Spaniards, the Russians, and the British in turn, as these foreigners sailed the Pacific and occasionally set foot on the lands that would become Washington, Oregon, and California. The condors were there as the Spanish missions were established, perhaps getting a new lease on life from the food provided from the expanding livestock herds - at the same time that the first human inhabitants of California were being destroyed by the actions taken against them by an alien religion. They accompanied the Lewis and Clark expedition from the Cascades of the Columbia to the sea, and soared overhead as westward-bound settlers and gold-seeking '49ers poured over the mountains and across the deserts into "condor country." They became enticing targets for men with guns, unique trophies for hobby collectors, and the relics of a probable lost race to the administrators of public museums. In the end, they disappeared from rocky canyons and grassy hillsides into city zoos, hopefully to raise new generations to begin another history of the California condors.

As a story of conservation, the condors' tale is not a satisfying one. Extolled for their size, and viewed with alarm in their increasing rarity, the condor was relegated to the role of "doomed bird" even before the end of the 19th century. Entering the 1900s, action was not toward study or preservation, but to getting more specimens while the getting was good. Not until the 1930s was there any move toward learning about the species and considering how it might be saved.

Preliminary studies, and the setting aside of a token sanctuary, raised awareness of the condors' plight. The increased interest made it possible to fund, and eventually carry out, the first in-depth investigation of the species. Unfortunately, the results of the study (which had been done in the 1930s and 1940s) were not finalized and made public until 1953. Part of the delay was due to the intervention of a World War, part to inertia on the part of the writer and the sponsoring organization. In any event, time had marched on for the condors without any significant help forthcoming for them. The eventual establishment of a much larger sanctuary undoubtedly bought the species a few more years. Yet, the same public awareness and sentiment that created the refuge also brought about extreme legal protection that made it nearly impossible to do anything proactive for the condors for the next quarter-century. By 1955, the lines were indelibly drawn between active "management" of the birds or letting them "take their chances." By the time of the second major investigation of the condors (1966-1980), there was really little to do but document the past, and fight for one meaningful intervention on behalf of species survival.

History - bad, good, or neutral - is what happened. Personally, I'd like to change parts of it, but it can't be done. History is history. How it gets remembered is something else, again. History can be written from ignorance, arrogance, faulty research, sloppiness, to support a cause, to "prove a point," to earn a diploma, to make a living, to discredit other ideas: the list goes on. Even disregarding capability and motive, we can never get it entirely right. By the time history becomes interesting, most of those who actually lived it are long gone. By that time, all we can do is the best we can.

I've devoted over 50 years to the study of the California condor. Obviously, in that time, I've developed a lot of opinions about the bird and the people involved with it. Those opinions were published in "Condor Tales" (Symbios, 2004). In“Nine Feet from Tip to Tip” (Symbios 2012) , I tried to tell history just for the sake of telling history - to "get it right," in so far as it is possible to ferret out the whole truth about anything in the past. Some of what I found revises even what I wrote in "Condor Tales" as recently as 2004, illustrating that "getting it right" can be an ongoing process.

I can remember a day back in the mid-1970s, as I was walking near the Sespe Condor Sanctuary with a young friend who had just hitch-hiked his way 3,500 miles from northern New Hampshire to southern California. He was on a personal vision-quest, and we talked about a lot of weighty things. At one point, he challenged me on my interest in historical research. What good is history, he asked? I don't remember how I responded. I probably used the line about those not knowing history being doomed to repeat it - which, by the way, I believe is one justification, even if as human beings we often seem incapable of not repeating past mistakes. My answer today would include that admonition, but it would be more visceral: history is fun; history is fascinating; and some of us seem to have an insatiable desire to "get it right." I could have finished writing“Nine Feet" two years earlier, but I kept finding new sources of information, and kept questioning myself as to whether or not I really knew what I just wrote. I've had a lot of fun - and learned quite a bit more about condors than I knew after my ten years of field research.

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Sanford Wilbur 2021