Thursday, October 11, 2018

‘Nature or nurture?’ or ‘What a comeback!’

I struggled to find a title for this blog because both of those above are equally true. 

Ms Denmark and I have just returned from a delightful trip to the U.S. Southwest - Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon, specifically. Everything worked out very well except for tropical storm Rosa. When I left St Petersburg after Bouchercon, I felt relieved that Hurricane Florence had turned north, so it was somewhat of a shock to encounter tropical storm Rosa in a part of the country that hardly ever experiences the effects of tropical depressions. Some parts of the US southwest, normally very arid, experienced almost a year’s rainfall in one swell foop.

When we arrived at the canyon, we literally could not see it – it was filled with and covered by thick cloud. 

So we folded our umbrella – yes, only one small one between us – and headed into the Visitors Center to learn what we could about the invisible monster that is the Grand Canon. After watching an excellent video presentation, we stumbled across an unscheduled ranger presentation on condors. Both of us being birders, Mette and I perked up and listened.

Condors, specifically California Condors, are enormous, with a three-metre (nearly ten foot) wingspan and weigh up to 12 kilograms (26 pounds). A couple of hundred years ago, their range covered the entire North America, from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. They are entirely carrion eaters and will eat anything dead, including fish. They numbered in the tens of thousands, with their only predators being some animals that went after their eggs and babies, and some native American Indians, who shot a few for ceremonial feathers.

And then the European settlers arrived. As you would guess, condors became the target for hunters – ‘what fun to shoot a condor’. Condors also succumbed by eating animals that had been poisoned by farmers for preying on their livestock or by eating carrion full of DDT. They were also shot by farmers as they ate dead lambs and calves that had been killed by other creatures. Not knowing any better, these farmers assumed that the huge birds had killed the animals.

 The slaughter continued and by 1987, the official count of California Condors in the wild was 22! Twenty two!

What was to be done?

A debate raged between two different groups: one wanted to let nature take its course with the end result being whatever nature wanted, perhaps even extinction, the other group pushed for capturing all 22 condors, bringing them to safety, and trying to increase the population while in captivity.

Eventually, the nurture group won out over the nature group, and the condors were captured and taken to the San Diego and Los Angeles zoos, funded largely by the U.S. government.

Condors mate for life and typically produce one egg (a big one) every two years. The ornithologists responsible for bringing condors back from extinction made an interesting discovery: if they took an egg away from the parents, they produced another one. So, condors were able to double their egg production.

The obvious question is: what happened to the first egg?

The first egg was incubated artificially and fed by a hand puppet to prevent imprinting on humans. The condor chicks didn’t know the difference and thrived. 

Condor puppet feeding chick
Eventually, four young condors were released to the wild. Unfortunately, three of the four died – one hit by a car, one after eating something toxic on the ground, and I don’t remember what happened to the third. The nature group said ‘I told you so!’

However, the people in charge of the effort changed their tactics and released young condors in the company of more experienced adults. This was successful.

Today, there are about 880 California Condors, half of which are still in captivity. Some are back in parts of the country from which they’ve been absent for a very long time.

A most handsome fella!
As a cherry on the top, the weather at the canyon cleared, and Ms Denmark and I saw a pair in flight. What a comeback!



I'm delighted to report that my effort to raise funds to send a container of 41,000 books to Durban in South Africa has been successful. The container is on the high seas as you read this and will arrive in Durban in the first week of November.  A huge thank you to all who contributed.


  1. I remember well the condors being captured and rescued from oblivion. One of the great stories of human's trying to fix one of their endless mistakes. Too bad it was too late for the passenger pigeons. However, all too often, we only seem to learn from our mistakes, so we've had to drive SOME species into extinction in order to learn to conserve. To bad we haven't all learned that lesson yet...

  2. Well done on the books!
    And what a comeback for the condors. I was preparing a novel writing workshop yesterday, talking about a book, weirdly, The Flight Of The Condor!

  3. Hooray for the condors and canyon! Nothing in a photo could communicate what it is to stand on the edge and gaze at at. Glad the clouds parted in time.

  4. Those birds are so misunderstood. We have turkey vultures in New Jersey--much smaller but still huge--and they are magnificent (but ominous) when circling in a Committee above you.