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When Ugly Is OK

So the California condor is coming back. In this case, “coming back” means to the hills of Southern California where they lived for about 5 million years, or something like that, before being rudely interrupted by man.

This winter, according to the plan, a new batch of young adults will be hauled into the hills and let go. If they do OK, some more will be released. And California condors will once again fly on their own over Southern California.

Who would have thought it. Southern California is not the sort of place where birds almost as old as the dinosaurs are supposed to survive. Southern California is supposed to crush creatures like the condors and never look back.

Personally, I never thought the condors would make it. And I do have some credentials in this regard. Back in the old days, it was my responsibility at this newspaper to witness the last days of various wild creatures. If, say, the desert pupfish was about to expire, I got the call.

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And away I would rush with my friends, the scientists, out to the desert. We would peer down at the four or five remaining pupfish swimming in their lonely pool of water. A pathetic scene, and the scientists would shake their heads. It won’t be long now, they would say.

And I would go back and write a sad story saying the pupfish were goners for sure. Doing these stories was like being on the funeral beat. You spread a lot of crepe.

Anyway, one day I got the call on the condors. Go to Ventura and see a man named John Borneman, I was told. The condors are about to join the wooly mammoths.

So out I drove to see Borneman, who worked for the Audubon Society. We went up into the hills to a spot noted for its superior condor viewing.

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But two hours later, there were still no condors. Borneman did not seem surprised.

There’s so few, he said. It used to be you could come up here and see four or five every afternoon. But no more. People shoot them. Ranchers poison them. Power lines electrocute them.

At that point, as I recall, there were about 80 left. It seemed to me that it was time for one of my sad stories. Only this story would be sadder than most because Southern California did not have anything to compare with the condor.

They were huge things, with wings that spread to 9 feet. And so ugly. They spent their days looking for the dead and dying. Borneman said they smelled bad to boot.

Big, gloomy, mordant birds. Perfect for Southern California. And going fast.

When I left that day, Borneman warned me not to make my story too sad. There’s still time, he said. These birds don’t have to disappear.

And it turns out he was right. Well, we can’t be certain about that, not quite yet. But over the past decade the taxpayers have spent $10 million on the condor, and we seem to be coming to the end of a long road.

It took some doing. By 1986 the population had shrunk to 25 or so, and it was desperation time. Every last bird was rounded up and carted off to a local zoo, leaving no birds in the wild.

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The idea with the zoos was to breed the condors in captivity. If they bred successfully, if the resulting population grew large enough, if the young condors could re-acclimate to the wild, then one day they might be brought back to the mountains.

You will notice the ifs in the program. The ifs suggested that the chances were small. As for myself, I didn’t believe it. The captive breeding thing looked like a scheme by the zoos to increase their ticket sales. And we all know about the zoos, eh?

Or do we? It turns out the zoos did OK. The condor population is now back up to 53 birds, enough to give reintroduction a shot. This thing just may work.

So what do we get for our $10 million? Just this big, filthy bird that comes down from the skies to bury its head in the carcass of a dead cow. A bird that cares not a whit for you or me. A bird with serious halitosis.

But listen, he’s our big, ugly bird. No one else has got anything like him. He’s been here since the Pleistocene, which means he was here when you could buy into Malibu cheap.

And if this reintroduction thing works, who knows, the condor may still be hanging around when we’re long gone. Not the saddest story, after all.


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