Condor Comeback
by Sy Montgomery (Author), Tianne Strombeck (Photographer)
(Scientists in the Field Series)
HMH Books for Young Readers (July 28, 2020), 0544816536
Condor Comeback (Scientists in the Field Series)


Montgomery, no stranger to science in the field, opens her introduction to this ongoing captive breeding program with a visit to the Santa Barbara Zoo. The zoo’s director of conservation, Estelle Sandhaus, introduces the writer and her readers to the species and the restoration process. They join ongoing California fieldwork in the form of condor checkups. These birds are still so endangered that wildlife specialists attempt to recapture each condor living in the wild every year, to check on its health and tracking devices. In an immediate, present-tense narrative, the writer describes the details of these checkups and some of the hazards: While holding birds, she was pooped on and bitten. They visit a biologist watching a nest site and see a new fledgling. After readers are thoroughly engaged with the birds, the writer steps back to describe continuing dangers—lead poisoning and microtrash—and the lab work that identifies the problems. She touches on the effects of wildfires in the birds’ neighborhoods; visits another nest watch; and talks with a tribal educator with the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, who revere the condors and are especially interested in their return. She and Dr. Sandhaus watch a chick webcam and meet third graders who’ve been studying condors. Close-up and long-range photos enliven every page. Most but not all of the researchers are white; the students are mostly Latinx, and one uses a wheelchair.

The California Condor’s stunning and fragile existence swoops into focus in the latest Scientists in the Field title. In 1982, fewer than two dozen California Condors were left in the wild, their numbers decimated by hunting, habitat loss, and poisoning from lead shot in the animal carcasses they eat. A collective effort led by conservationists and zoos is slowly rebuilding the population, but they remain critically endangered. As Montgomery relates this history, she introduces readers to scientists and volunteers, mostly women, working to protect the condor today, including experts at the Los Angeles Zoo, field ornithologists checking each wild bird, toxicologists testing for lead, and a Chumash tribal educator who discusses how “the condor is a spirit helper for the Chumash.” Alongside Strombeck’s crisp photographs, Montgomery details the realities of their work—from thrilling moments such as spotting a baby chick to long observation sessions where not much happens—and has a knack for evocative descriptions (a “bird half the size of a small sofa,” “rustling feathers—like dozens of debutantes in taffeta ballgowns”). Though the condor’s future remains tenuous, Montgomery’s compelling page-turner inspires optimism. Ages 10–12. (July)
—STARRED REVIEW, Publishers Weekly