He's lying in wait beside the trap, staring at the carcass of a stillborn calf, talking to trackers on the radio, reading magazines. Then it happens. Peter Bloom always feels a chill at the arrival of a California condor. From 100 yards he hears a whistle of air, a sound that slowly builds to a roar. Next comes a heavy thud-thud and the clatter of enormous wings folding as the bird touches ground. Bloom hears its deep, even breath. It sounds a bit like a winded child.
Eventually he sees the condor through a tiny opening in the dirt-covered foxhole somewhere in south central California. It is a monster of a bird, the largest land bird in North America, with a wingspan almost four feet longer than the 5'9" Bloom is tall. It is jet-black except for a fleshy, reddish head, a vivid halo of red in the eyes and a pennant of long white feathers on the underside of each wing. This particular bird is the last free-flying member of a species with roots in the Pleistocene Epoch. It is known to condor watchers as Adult Condor-9.
"You get the feeling he knows something is up," says Bloom, a member of the five-man team that has stalked AC-9 for several months. "You can sense him looking around. He looks at every little detail, at the grass, at the bait carcass, at the eagles. He's very methodical. You get the impression he's listening."
He should be. Although this time AC-9 didn't come close enough for Bloom to grab him, someday soon Bloom or some other team member will rise out of a hole and grab AC-9 from behind, or fire a net that will trap the bird. The last wild condor will then be caged and driven to an isolated corner of the San Diego Zoo.
The capture of AC-9 might save the species, which has been on the brink of extinction for at least half a century, and it might not. All that's certain is that shortly after the bird is snared, it will pass into a scientific twilight zone of computerized gene-tracking, puppet-mothering and behavior modification.
Twenty-six California condors are now living in that world, hidden away at the Los Angeles and the San Diego Zoos. Most of them arrived as eggs. The rest were trapped and delivered in fiberglass containers. All are supposed to be released, though no one is sure when. No one is happy that these birds are in captivity, including the zoos and, least of all, Bloom. A relic of the Ice Age, the California condor can cover 150 miles in a day. It can ride a thermal wind for miles, seemingly without moving its wings. At other times it appears to hang in flight before suddenly diving to earth for a meal.
"Seeing a condor in the wild is unlike anything you can imagine," says Michael Wallace, the curator of birds at the Los Angeles Zoo. "It's eerie." What's also eerie is that after thousands of years in the wild the California condor will soon be visible to only a handful of scientists, its guardians in a last-ditch effort to save the species. To date, no condor has ever mated in a zoo, or laid a fertilized egg in a zoo.
Only a few species have come this close to extinction and survived, among them the whooping crane, the red wolf in North Carolina, the Arabian oryx in the Middle East, the Mauritius kestrel and the Puerto Rican parrot. "It's an ecological crapshoot, but we've got to go through with it," says Whitney Tilt, an endangered-species specialist employed by the National Audubon Society and a grudging supporter of captive-breeding proposals. "It's what you do when you just don't know, but you've got to do something fast."
At one time the condor ranged over most of western North America. Many of its contemporaries—such as mammoths and saber-toothed cats—disappeared centuries ago. By this decade, the condor's habitat had become limited to the foothills and mountains of the Sierra Madre and the Tehachapi, and to the coastal ranges of central and Southern California. It is a total area of around 11 million acres, 2 million of which are officially designated rangeland, including three condor sanctuaries.
In the late '30s, when the Audubon Society first studied the condor, probably no more than 100 condors were extant. Since then, the bird has fallen victim to a variety of natural and unnatural threats. Besides loss of habitat, these include witting and unwitting hunters, collectors of exotic eggs, power lines and oil sumps, lead-shot-filled carcasses and pesticides. In the '50s, oilmen seeking drilling rights in the midst of the condor's habitat went so far as to describe the bird's protected lands as a threat to U.S. forces in Korea. In the '60s, backers of a plan to build a dam and reservoir near one of the sanctuaries dismissed the condors as "flying garbage cans."