Book highlights work of Santa Barbara Zoo conservationists
“Condor Comeback” by New York Times bestselling author Sy Montgomery features the conservation efforts of the Santa Barbara Zoo and the work of Dr. Estelle Sandhaus, the zoo’s director of conservation and science.
“(Ms. Montgomery) is a really experiential writer. When she writes these books, her process is really writing an adventure,” Dr. Sandhaus told the News-Press.
“Condor Comeback” (HMH Books for Young Readers, $18.99) describes a myriad of locations, such as those where the bunker zookeepers feed the condors, sneaking meals through tunnels so the birds won’t see the human behind the wall.
Then Ms. Montgomery transports readers to the backcountry where condors nest.
“Everything we do is what she’s weaving into the story,” Dr. Sandhaus said. “She is an incredibly sharp intelligent woman but also has this wide-eyed wonder. When she tells this story, she has a way that children can relate to and be captivated by.”
“Condor Comeback” is optimized for kids ages 10 to 12 but can be enjoyed by more. Wildlife photography by Tianne Strombeck zooms in on the textures of the large, dramatic birds.
“I’m hoping that kids will see that there are so many ways a person can contribute to conservation work and saving a species,” Dr. Sandhaus said.
The book shows a variety of key players, including the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, which has maintained an ancient connection to condors. But Ms. Montgomery mainly follows the adventures of Santa Barbara Zoo staff.
“The Santa Barbara Zoo is not a huge zoo, but its commitment to conservation — especially of species practically in its backyard, like the California Condor and the Channel Island foxes — packs an enormous punch,” Ms. Montgomery said.
Before conservation efforts by the Santa Barbara Zoo and other organizations, California condors were extinct in the wild. Now Dr. Sandhaus occasionally sees a condor not yet marked and recorded by zoos.
She said one of the reasons the Santa Barbara Zoo focuses a lot of efforts on saving condors is because they were “brought to the brink of extinction by human action.”
She estimates that half of condors the zoo has confirmed deceased died from lead poisoning.
Condors benefit from hunting because they eat the carcasses left by hunters, but lead ammunition causes many deaths. The zoo tries to educate visitors about this problem.
“We are seeing traction in our communities of folks embracing non lead ammunition. Once we get a handle on that, we’ll be in a pretty good place,” Dr. Sandhaus said.
The second problem is small bits of trash she calls “microtrash.” Condors pick up the trash thinking its bone or shells and feed it to chicks, which causes fatalities.
“Only two things really threaten condors today, and both are in our hands: lead bullets and plastic microtrash. Get rid of these, and our skies can be graced with the majestic birds forever,” Ms. Montgomery said.
Condors reproduce slowly, so conservationists value every chick. In one scene of the book, Ms. Montgomery and researchers spend hours observing a nest.
Technology like GPS trackers helps staff confirm the condors are alive, and they wait for critical moments. While watching the chick, the team saw the young condor take one of its first flights.
“My heart took flight with that fledgling,” Ms. Montgomery said.
She was drawn to condors during a book tour. She stopped at the Santa Barbara Zoo and met the personality-filled condors.
“I think she just really fell in love with the bird, the program and it kind of formed from that initial visit,” Dr. Sandhaus said.
Thus “Condor Comeback” was hatched.
“After being with them for less than five minutes, Erin and Estelle felt like long-time friends — but with endless stories I couldn’t wait to hear,” Ms. Montgomery said.
The conservation efforts are ongoing as the flocks grow larger.