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out & about

The Canadian Condor Why we could—and should—bring the big bird back

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by j.b. MacKinnon Picture the California condor, mighty icon of endangered species. No, really—make a genuine effort to picture that giant, vulturelike bird. Normally a writer likes nothing more than to sketch such a scene in purple-tinted prose, but this time it’s important that you do the best you can with your own mind’s eye. Now answer the following question: What is your visualized condor soaring over? If my informal surveys are correct, it will be a desert, probably a red rock desert such as in Utah or Arizona. A minority of people will see the dry chaparral of southern California. But if you happen to be an American conservation scientist named David Moen, you’ll picture the ragged, rain-swept coasts and cloud-breathing forests of the Pacific Northwest. A large part of Moen’s work as a research associate for the Oregon Zoo is to shake up the human imagination. It’s only natural that people think of deserts when they think of condors, because that’s where condors live today, thanks to a much-publicized campaign to reintroduce the huge scavengers to the wilderness. For five long years beginning in 1987, there were no wild California condors anywhere on Earth; the last 22 free-living birds had been taken into zoos for captive breeding in a desperate effort to save the species from extinction. Since 1991, the program has steadily released condors at select locations in Baja California and the

southwestern United States, most famously in the Grand Canyon. The reintroduction is a success, though the released birds are not what everyone would call “wild.” Besides wearing numbers like NASCAR drivers, they continue to rely, in part, on carcasses supplied as food by human caretakers. This dependence is not the fault of the condors, nor is it evidence that they were a doomed species, well on their way to a natural extinction before millions of dollars were spent to keep them alive. The real reason that condors struggle with independent living is that their world has been under assault for some 10,000 years, since the last of the Pleistocene ice ages. You know, right about the time that a flightless primate named Homo sapiens started spreading across North America. “Some people like to say condors are ‘left over’ from the Pleistocene, but they’re a

survivor,” says Moen. “They made it for a reason.” Growing up in Portland, Moen heard about the condors seen—and shot—in that area by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in 1805 and 1806, during the overland expedition that helped to define the American West. As he moved into bird research as a career, Moen came to realize that the Oregon condors had been almost entirely forgotten even as the species became a global symbol of hope and recovery. He began to piece together what was left of the story. Among his discoveries was the fact that condor reports didn’t stop in Oregon. There were records from further north. Once upon a time, there was such a thing as a Canadian condor. I’m sitting with Moen in a log-house pub above the Clackamas River southeast of j u n e 2 0 1 0 explore 2 1


out & about Portland. Beyond the picture windows is the typical Cascadian scene of claustrophobic forest and emerald underbrush. A bald eagle wheels above a hill, and I ask Moen what it would be like to see a condor riding those same winds. Moen does his best to describe the wide, slow arc of a condor’s f light, the 10-foot wingspan, the way a condor would make the eagle seem small and marauding ravens look like four-and-twenty blackbirds. Then he just says this: “You would see everybody in this restaurant standing at that rail right there with their mouths gaping open. It’s just that kind of bird.”

But memory is hard country. For the most part, we trust the essence of the world around us to hold steady; we believe the present is the storehouse of the past. When something disappears entirely, it becomes easy to doubt that it was ever there at all. So goes the story of the Canadian condor. In 1866, John Keast Lord, naturalist on the British North American Boundary Commission, and an observer careful enough to discern different species of mosquito, reported the condor on his list of B.C. fauna, noting that the bird was found at the mouth of the Fraser River but “seldom visits the Interior.” In 1880, Jack Fannin, founding

In 1866, a naturalist on the British North American Boundary Commission reported the condor on his list of B.C. fauna, noting that the bird was found at the mouth of the Fraser River, but “seldom visits the Interior.” For nearly three years, Moen has been working to prove that California condors are a time-honoured part of the Pacific Northwest. There’s no real question that they were seen in pioneer times; the question is whether they lived and bred here or were mere visitors from their California heartland. Moen has yet to find his smoking gun, which would be condor DNA in the soil samples he has taken from the cliffside caves that may have acted as the birds’ nesting sites. Along the way, however, he has amassed an impressive array of supporting evidence. To begin with, it is clear that the so-called California condor can withstand a more northerly lifestyle. Moen and I are seated just a few miles from the Oregon Zoo’s condor centre, where the birds are raised for release far to the south. The birds at the centre are far from sensitive when it comes to the North Pacific climate: They’re often seen hunkered in the sleet and wind while their heated, covered shelters sit empty nearby. Historical accounts report condors along the nearby Columbia River in every season, while First Nations recall the birds in stories and art. Though the condor has been gone from Oregon for at least three generations, the absence looks different from the perspective of people whose roots in the Northwest reach back through millennia. Moen recalls one man saying, “They’ve been gone just a very short time.” 2 2 explore j u n e 2 0 1 0

curator of the Royal B.C. Museum, and again no slouch in the observational powers department, saw two condors at the mouth of Burrard Inlet—what is now the urban heart of Vancouver. By 1893, a Mr. W. London would tell the visiting naturalist Samuel Rhoads that while condors had disappeared from the area, they “used to be common” on Lulu Island. Lulu Island is today known as Richmond, arguably the most modern of Canadian cities, with more foreign-born citizens than any other municipality and recently voted the best place in the world to go out for Chinese food. Little more than a century ago, it was shadowed by the wings of condors. As with the reports from Oregon, all of these Canadian sightings were doubted. Some put the accounts down as errors, or at best “accidental” visitations, like the flamingo that was once reported on B.C. shores. How could the condors be anything else? By the time modern bird experts were considering the question, the nearest condors were 2,000 kilometres away in the California Pinnacles. Then again, no one ever looked very hard for further evidence. Moen did, and while his budget didn’t allow him to pay a lot of attention to Canada, he still turned up a basket, woven by Vancouver Island Huu-ay-aht artist Liz Happynook using motifs handed down through her family, that features what Moen calls “almost an exact depiction” of a

standing condor (they stand, incidentally, about four feet tall). Best of all, in 2006, an archaeological dig turned up a condor bone on Pender Island, a quick ferry trip from either Vancouver or Victoria. Yes, it could be the bone of a condor lost and far from home. Yes, it might have been traded up the coast all the way from California. On the other hand, it might just mean that the great primordial buzzard once called Canada home. Scientists have begun to see good reasons why places like the mouth of the Fraser River might have been the last, best scrounging grounds of the wild condor. At the end of the Pleistocene, condors ranged widely across North America, merrily scavenging the carrion of huge animals such as mammoths and the kills of such nightmarish predators as the sabre-toothed cat and dire wolf. Then human beings arrived and the megafauna faded into oblivion. A 2009 study weighed the evidence on whether humans or climate change was to blame for these extinctions, and placed the bulk of the blame on the early human invaders. Our arrival as a species sparked a series of ecological changes that emptied the continent of its largest animals. The condors were running out of food. The coast was a refuge. While terrestrial North America eventually lost 33 genera of animals that weighed 100 pounds or more, the oceans lost none. Beached whales still washed ashore, along with the carcasses of other big beasts such as elephant seals and basking sharks, which could measure more than 30 feet in length. Spawned-out salmon heaped up at the mouths of Pacific rivers. “It was really a scavenger’s heaven here for a long time,” says Sandy Wilbur, one of the last people to work with wild condors in the 1980s, and among the few who keep alive the record of the Pacific Northwest birds. The coastal condors lived on until the new wave of human settlement in the wake of European exploration. Wilbur’s careful count of condors shot by humans in the historical record suggests that hunting alone could have wiped the species off the Oregon map. Still, the slaughter of whales, seals and sea lions can’t have helped, and neither could the depletion of fish stocks. “There is a pretty basic way to talk about the subject,” says Wilbur, who now lives just outside of Portland. “What happened to the condors? We happened.”


out & about I think we should bring them back. Yes, to Canada. Easy for me to say. I’m not a government wildlife manager making daily decisions about ecological triage in an age of extinctions. I’m not even a professional environmentalist with limited funding and too many emergencies. But I’ve interviewed enough conservation scientists to know that at some level it comes down to this—to making your stand on the kind of world you want. I like condors. I like the idea of them ripping the wind overhead, the sound that in some places linked them to the Thunderbird myths. Most of all, I like what they represent: big dreams that shatter conventional timelines and entrenched expectations. All across Canada there are species that once had a place but now are not only gone, but also forgotten. The freshwater seals of Lac Champlain. Walruses on Sable Island off Nova Scotia, and as far south as the Bay of Fundy. Grizzly bears on the prairies, bison in Ontario, polar bears down to the northern shore of the St. Lawrence River. Each lingers only in rumours and traces, its past existence supported by evidence of varying quality. In every case the path to restoration would be long and complex. One troubling problem with reintroducing condors to the Pacific Northwest, for example, is the fact that today’s sea mammals store so many chemical residues in their blubber that their carcasses can arguably be considered toxic waste. There is inspiration, though, in the idea of not struggling merely to hold on, to stick another finger in the failing dyke of ecological losses, but to actually reverse the tide. Based on the work of the Oregon Zoo, condors could be free-living in the Pacific Northwest in as little as five years. The idea is controversial, though—endangered species have become yet another front in America’s culture wars, mistrusted as a lever the federal government might use to limit human freedoms and impose top-down authority. The California condor as black helicopter. Which is one more reason that Canada should consider a more ambitious environmental ethic. Canadians are not yet so wary of one another, not yet so divided a house. We might still be able to muster enthusiasm for a cause that transcends our humanity and deepens it, too. Back in Clackamas Valley, Moen makes the case for the condor, from the importance of its biological niche as an apex scavenger 2 4 explore j u n e 2 0 1 0


out & about to its position in the culture of many West Coast First Nations. Then the two of us walk out of the pub to look at a cliff that recently featured in the Twilight movie series but is also where, not so very long ago, an apex scavenger might have roosted. We’re saying our goodbyes when Moen stops me to

river’s mouth on the longest continuous truss bridge in North America, a meaningless factoid that nonetheless impresses me, though not as much as the fact that the bridge was built to withstand wind speeds of 240 kilometres an hour. The mouth of the Columbia “has weather,” as they say. On

The path to restoration would be long and complex. There is inspiration, though, in the idea of not struggling merely to hold on, to stick another finger in the failing dyke of ecological losses, but to actually reverse the tide share one last reason to bring back forgotten species. It would prove, he says, that we can live with something that once upon a time we could not. The following day I drive the north bank of the Columbia River to the wonderfully named town of Ilwaco, Washington— where a life-size statue of a condor fronts a wharfside tourist trap—then cross the

the other side I arrive in Astoria, Oregon, where a condor is featured on a sign at the town lookout. Lewis and Clark’s “beautiful buzzard” lives on, in glimpses. But I’m headed for Saddle Mountain, the conglomerate tower that draws the eye from almost any point in the area. The name is more inventive than it sounds: The mountain isn’t saddle-shaped so much as it looks as though a saddle of sky has been slung

over its ridgeline. The hike to the top takes only an hour, give or take, and the summit is enclosed in protective railings, but none of this can dull the magical gee and haw of mist through cracks and canyons, between which I see, far below, the crashing surf where the Columbia River meets the sea. I sit on a bench where a man is reading aloud from the eco-radical classic The Monkey Wrench Gang and where a woman pets a dog named Tenzing and where I am asked the following question, I kid you not: “What are your thoughts on craisins?” But I have no thoughts on craisins. My thoughts are on something Sandy Wilbur told me: that when there are wild condors around, the best way to see them is to lie on your back on the top of some peak. Lie there and wait, keeping deathly still. Eventually, a condor will drift past to check you out. It will circle for closer inspection. Then, at the last moment, you come back to life. e For more on the latest obsessions and adventures of our senior contributing editor, visit jbmackinnon.com.

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The Canadian Condor  

Why we could- and should- bring the big bird back to Canada.