The story behind The Condor’s Shadow

The journey that began with discovery work for a documentary film on the California condor began in 2010. I was drawn to the condor story out of a desire to explore an environmental success. With the relentless pounding of the climate change doom drum we all are subjected to each and every day I felt there would be value in telling a hopeful environmental story. One that would reaffirm our ability to address the environmental issues ahead and revealing of the commitment required to right an environmental wrong. Based in Santa Barbara California, I had proximity to the origins of quite a number of interesting environmental stories. Some were broader in scope and others more on the conservation end of the spectrum. Having spent many days in Southern California wilderness areas I had a natural affinity for the later. I felt like a film on preservation of a natural resource would fit my worldview and would unfold organically. 

Just forty miles from my front door are the last vestiges of habitat for the California condor. I had hiked and fished that rugged backcountry terrain over the years. The Dick Smith Wilderness and the Sespe and Sisquoc condor sanctuaries are all areas within an hour or two of my home that have been preserved for the benefit of the California condor. California condors have been reintroduced in these areas beginning in 1992. The iconic status of the species added a lot of gravity to the story and the endangered species recovery effort was well known.  That awareness would be foundational to the documentary storyline. The story had elements of success, was highly visual and both the birds and the people were accessible for filming. With those components in alignment I moved ahead.

Based in Ventura California, the condor recovery program is run by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The very first program to be funded and executed after the passage of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the program has a rich and varied history with its share of controversy. So as my collaborators Jessica McLoughlin and Ethan Turpin plied the modern day waters of the condor recovery program and worked on access to the individuals that had lived this story for over thirty years it began to gel what the film was to be.

The elements that would make for a compelling narrative in the condor recovery story are really very human. The condor has been around for many thousands if not millions of years. Evolution was not driving the bird to its demise. The dilemma of the condor is entirely human in origin. I could see that the story of the condor was one about rectifying the unintended consequences of human preferences. So the story that would become The Condor’s Shadow was really to be about the challenge of rebuilding a self-sustaining population of this impressively huge scavenger bird. Certainly this was to be a story of endangered species recovery. Anyway you look at this it’s a remarkable achievement that the 22 California condors remaining on earth in 1982 could be bred into 400+ today. Certainly that’s a win. But while filming an interview with Joseph Brandt, the lead field biologist for the Southern California program, he reflected upon what others have said about the three-decade-long commitment to recover the species.

“People say it’s just a bird. It’s a dinosaur. It should have been extinct a long time ago…”

Joseph is an interesting guy. He a bit of a dichotomy when you meet him, with blond dreadlocks that extend down his back and the tan and brown uniform of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. At 6’6” he’s physically imposing while at the same time being gregarious and genuine. I had hopes early on that he would become the main character in The Condor’s Shadow. A character-based documentary is generally more engaging than a topic-based film. Initially he was receptive but not overly encouraging to the concept of being the focus of the story. Clearly, a vérité film crew following him around would add yet another distraction to an already tough job. But having worked with condors on and off for nearly a decade he was well aware of one key potential benefit from a film on the program: Broader public awareness. Thirty years after the rescue effort commenced, California condors are being reintroduced into an environment that contains the same threats that brought the bird to the edge of extinction in the 1980’s. Raising awareness of the issues would be good for the condor.     

For Joseph to be in the position he was in, doing the physically demanding and gritty work of a field biologist there had to be passion. Driving that passion there needed to be a philosophical commitment that the goal being pursued deserves to be achieved.

In our interview for the film Joseph’s rejoinder to the critics was practiced but sincere:

“The condor is just a bird in the same way the Grand Canyon is just a canyon. The condor is a symbol of American conservation in a lot of respects and it serves us all to protect that resource.”

At the time his comeback seemed a bit contrived and perhaps over-stated. But as the film production progressed and my appreciation for the conservation effort gained depth, the spirit behind Joseph’s sentiment began to resonate. It still resonates with me today.

 In truth the condor really is just a bird. But really, is that not enough? The responsibility for the condor’s near-demise is our own. There is nothing about the bird’s dilemma that is not human induced. The responsibility for pulling it back from the brink is ours as well.

The good news is that we’ve made progress. Ultimately, as it turns out, the number one threat to the bird’s continuing survival is spent lead ammunition. It’s a fact that was suspected in the 1980’s and studied extensively but not clearly articulated until Myra Finkelstein’s peer-reviewed study was published in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences in 2012. Her work demonstrated with a high degree of certainty that if lead continues to occur in the scavenged food sources of the California condor the species will forever be conservation program dependent. All things being equal, remove the lead and the condor will thrive.

Despite active resistance by the powerful gun industry lobby, legislation to control the introduction of lead ammunition into the environment through any hunting activity has become law in California. This treads into a terrain of stiff cultural resistance that will take years to overcome but in the end I’m optimistic that reason will prevail.   

So the California condor may well be “ just a bird “ but the condor is a survivor in an age when species are disappearing at an alarming rate. The recovery of this species demonstrates what can be done by those who appreciate the intrinsic value of “…it’s just a bird.” and respond the obligation that this creates.

Ultimately, the value of The Condor’s Shadow lies in the portrayal of that response by Joseph Brandt and dozens of others who play a role in the condor’s recovery with passion and recognition of the value of all species on earth. It’s an emotionally evocative story and one with several dimensions we can learn from. For the bird-lover, the aspiring wildlife biologist, the conservationist and those with a concern for endangered species there is a lot here to appreciate. It’s a story that works on many different levels and always provokes conversation.  

The Condor’s Shadow will broadcast on PBS affiliates in California beginning in December of 2013.  DVD’s of the film are available for educational venues through Dark Hollow Films –


Kind words on The Condor’s Shadow

The Condor’s Shadow tells one of the great conservation stories of  the last century and also presents the scientific challenges of endangered species restoration in a human context accessible to all viewers.

Mark Madison, Ph.D.
U.S.Fish and Wildlife Service Historian
National Conservation Training Center
American Conservation Film Festival Selection Committee Chair

Hunters and environmentalists used to be one in the same.

In the volcanically super-heated debate over AB 711 in California, an ugly truth has resurfaced to fuel the fiery ooze.

As this sound, very non-partisan column clearly points out, hunter and conservationist were once synonymous. Their mission was the same: to preserve and enjoy the natural world around us.

Today, as the talk over AB 711 has demonstrated, the two groups could not be further apart on ideology. Each labels the other as extremist lie-tellers bent on either a gun in every person’s hand or a gun for every inch of landfill space on Earth. 

What a shame; it’s no wonder we remain at this ever-widening crossroads.

Each side of the debate has their own degree of culpability in the matter. While we hash out personal vendettas and corporate agendas, several species of animals are dying in the periphery. The California Condor is only the latest example. 

AB 711 should pass because the condors and hunters both need it to. It’s a bill for the environment, not for any one special interest. 

New screenings announced for The Condor’s Shadow


Putting aside the politics of California AB 711 for a moment, let’s get back to why we’re all here: Learning about what it takes to keep the condor population alive, and eventually self-sustaining, in the wild. 

Oh, we’re psyched to add that come fall, we’ll be hitting the road with premieres in Wisconsin and West Virginia.

Saturday, September 28, 2013
University of California-Davis to benefit The California Raptor Center

4:00 p.m.: reception
6:00 p.m.: screening
Tickets available through Eventbrite.

Saturday, October 5, 2013
Hi Mountain Condor Lookout Open House
Los Padres National Forest, CA
Screening details to be announced soon

Sunday, October 6, 2013
2013 Conference of the Wildlife Society, Milwaukee, WI
12:30 p.m.
Lead Toxicity Symposium
Attendance free for conference attendees

Friday, November 1 - Sunday, November 3, 2013

2013 American Conservation Film Festival, Shepherdstown, WV
Screening details to be announced soon



California AB 711 to be heard this month. Support needed. Contact information herein:


The proposed law to banish lead ammunition in California, Assembly Bill 711, will be heard this week, 8/30. This incredibly important piece of legislation will be a tremendous help to the efforts of those working to preserve and rejuvenate the California condor.

Naturally, organizations like the NRA and sordid cadre of minions are using the bill to advance a pro-gun culture to ensure common sense comes no where close to the debate.

Even though the law itself poses absolutely no threat to the industry of sport hunting (which the condors rely upon) nor to the laws pertaining to gun ownership, the NRA insists that a surreptitious cabal organized against all forms of gun ownership is actually running the California legislature from a bunker beneath the streets of Sacramento. They need no proof or documentation, only faith.

Meanwhile, in the land of facts, decades of highly specific studies, x-rays and autopsies show that lead bullet fragments are the primary (not the only) cause of lead poisoning in condors. And, despite the fact that the metal has been removed from gasoline, paint and to the best of our knowledge, toys assembled in China, the NRA through its provocative, heavily pedantic online mouthpiece,, insists that lead is fine for the world and that in fact, they sprinkle it on omelets and use it to chase shots of Jack.

We now understand the source of their mindset.

AB 711 is a critical weapon in the battle to preserve this magnificent bird. It is not a threat to the owners of Cabelas or the ranchers who need to shoot nuisance critters. It’s simply a helpful bit of environmental law to ensure that a bird long teetering on the edge of existence can fall toward the good side of humanity.

Here are the elected lawmakers you can contact to express your support:

Senator Kevin de Leon (chair): 916/651-4022
Senator Mimi Walters: 916/651-4037
Senator Ted Gaines: 916/651-4001
Senator Jerry Hill: 916/651-4013
Senator Ricardo Lara: 916/651-4033
Senator Alex Padilla: 916/651-4020
Senator Darrell Steinberg: 916/651-4006

The Hunt for truth is more like a stumble is a gun-lobby created website to oppose AB 711, a bill in the California senate that will ban the use of lead ammunition state-wide.

Currently lead bullets can’t be used in designated “condor zones.”

The purpose of the bill is to remove a toxic metal from the environment that’s proven to sicken fish, water fowl and the state’s most endangered bird, the California condor. In fact, it’s proven to be the most prevalent source of lead poisoning for the condor. 

In its effort to derail the legislation, is citing research studies that have only mere mentions of condors, lead and the connection between the two.

For example, this paper abstract published by states that there isn’t enough lead in the digestive tract of wild boars in greater Europe to make humans sick. 

Huh. That’s pretty specific. Problem is, California is about a globe away from the countries mentioned in the abstract and the AB711 is about helping prevent lead from killing condors, not people who eat boar in Germany.  

But you guys keep at it. Tumblr allows us to post whenever we want. 

New screenings announced! The Condor’s Shadow to air on PBS in SoCal this fall.

The broadcast date is yet to be announced but “The Condor’s Shadow” is confirmed for its fall 2013 television premier on Southern California PBS stations. 

Many thanks to the broadcast sponsor Audubon California. Look for date announcements on Cox Cable, Time Warner Cable, Charter and Verizon Fios.

We’re also excited about another public screening of the film on September 28 at UC Davis’ Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts to benefit the University’s Raptor Center. 

Follow these links and our website for exact times, soon to be announced. 

And, as always, support all non-lead ammunition efforts throughout California, and nationally where applicable. 

Condors exist under social structure of dominance, new research shows

New research on the California condor shows that the species has intact a social structure that leverages dominance within nesting regions. 

The information has come to light only recently because of the bird’s relative scarcity in the wild. Still, the research took a number of years longer than it might have if focused on a larger bird population; and it remains ongoing. Remote cameras were used to capture much of the research that was used to derive the findings. 

Like most animal species, structures of dominance are used to ensure healthy populations. However, it can certainly be argued that if a particular condor is pushed out of a population it will have little chance of survival.  

The news came to light thanks to the efforts of the condor rehab program that’s been long underway at the San Diego Zoo.

Any new information about the condor is critical, as the endangered bird can use all the help it can get to win the war for its existence. If we can learn more about them, in any capacity, it only helps the effort to return them to full wild sustainability. 

The online nest of The Condor's Shadow, a wildlife documentary about the challenges remaining to return the California Condor to a life of wild self-sustainability.

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