This bird survived
Because she never quit
By John Moir | Fall 2020

This Bird Lives Because She Never Quit

Jan Hamber defied the norms of her time, helped save the California Condor, and at age 90 is still blazing a trail for other women scientists.

On a spring day in 2019, in a small cave tucked into a massive cliff in Zion National Park, a California Condor chick pecked its way free of its enormous egg. In the first days after the young bird emerged, its parents took turns cuddling their baby just as condors have done for tens of thousands of years. But this birth was anything but ordinary. That little bundle of fluff taking its first teetering steps on unsteady legs was the 1,000th chick born to the California Condor Recovery Program.

When the recovery program began, in the early 1980s, only 22 condors remained in the world. Back then the prospect of reaching this milestone was unimaginable, recalls biologist Jan Hamber. “At the time, so much was unknown about the species. And it was an open question whether the condor could be saved.” As a member of the team racing to save the bird from extinction, she trekked through rough, remote California wilderness to find and monitor the fast-disappearing scavengers, making observations and decisions that would prove critical to their recovery. At age 90, she is still devoted to preserving the iconic bird, now as manager of the Condor Archives, a unique repository of condor information housed in the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

In her sunlit office, Hamber settles in her chair and folds her hands over her chest. Her easy manner makes others immediately feel comfortable, and she still wears her field biologist attire: jeans, sneakers, and a T-shirt emblazoned with a condor logo. Aside from her hair softening to gray, she looks much the same as she did decades ago when she hiked endless miles in Santa Barbara’s rugged backcountry researching some of the last wild birds. Condor pictures crowd one wall, and a menagerie of toy condors sprawls across a cabinet top. Floor-to-ceiling bookcases are crammed with field notes, and rows of file cabinets hold yet more records. When she talks about condors, Hamber’s gentle voice quickens and her eyes smile with delight.

Hamber’s own remarkable journey in becoming a condor biologist at times seemed as implausible as the birth of that new chick. In the mid-20th century, when Hamber began her decades-long push to break into the field, women biologists were as rare as condors. “In those days women were expected to be homemakers or possibly teachers or nurses,” she says. “No one imagined we could be out tramping around with backpacks.” Much less play an important role in saving America’s largest land bird, while inspiring a generation of younger women following in her footsteps.

Born in New Jersey at the onset of the Great Depression, Jan Armstrong developed an early love of nature on walks with her father. “Ever since I was 10 years old, all I wanted to be was a naturalist,” she says. In 1947 she was accepted to Cornell University, where women were a distinct minority. “In the yearbook of my graduating class, there were 243 men and 32 women,” she says. Despite the gender disparity, she loved majoring in botany and taking ornithology classes: “I was like a kid in a candy store.”

She soon met Hank Hamber, and the young couple became inseparable. After she earned her degree, the newlyweds hit the road. They hopscotched across the continent visiting national parks, then lived in Alaska for two years before eventually settling in California and starting a family.

Santa Barbara offered few options for a woman scientist in the late 1950s, even one who graduated from Cornell with honors. Hamber was determined to do something connected to nature. She helped found the Santa Barbara Audubon chapter. She also started volunteering at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, where she worked her way up to associate curator of vertebrate zoology, joining an all-male science team focused on researching birds on a nearby Channel Island. The team spent days at a time on the island—but not Hamber. The island’s owner allowed only men to conduct research, so she remained in the office. “I got used to researchers who were visiting the museum from other institutions coming through the door, and if I was the only one there, I’d hear them say, ‘Oh, there’s no one here.’ They assumed I was a secretary.”

Ironically, her exclusion from the island presented Hamber with a life-changing opportunity. Renowned Santa Barbara naturalist Dick Smith was eager to study a pair of nesting condors he had discovered in a restricted area. The U.S. Forest Service required a biologist to accompany him, so he asked if a museum scientist could be freed up two days a month to help. With all the men committed to the island research, Hamber was the only biologist available for the job. Finally, at age 46, she had her chance.

As she prepared for her first excursion, she began to have doubts. She was headed into the remote San Rafael Wilderness and its wild jumble of peaks thick with impenetrable chaparral. “I had never backpacked before,” she says. “My husband and I bought some equipment for me, and I can remember thinking, ‘How far will I be able to make it?’ ”

On January 9, 1976, Hamber shouldered her new pack and set out with Smith and three Forest Service personnel on a rough-cut fire road. She didn’t know it yet, but as her boots crunched on the stony earth and she breathed the sage-scented winter air, she’d begun her life’s work. Later that day three condors wheeled right overhead, commanding the sky with wings so enormous they looked like airplanes. Hamber was smitten.

The monthly treks were demanding, rattlesnakes were not uncommon, and harsh weather was a constant companion. But there Hamber was, binoculars in hand, taking detailed field notes, studying a magnificent and perilously endangered bird. She loved it. “It turned out I could do this job just fine.”

At the beginning of the second year, tragedy struck: Smith died suddenly from a heart attack. “He was only 56,” Hamber says. “It was shocking. And it left a big question: With Smith gone, what would happen?”

Condors, whose population had steadily declined in the 19th and 20th centuries, were now critically endangered. At best a few dozen birds remained, and the reason for the species’ continuing plunge toward extinction remained a mystery.

Sandy Wilbur, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist overseeing condor research, urged Hamber to carry on with her study and arranged funding. “Dick Smith had been impressed with her work,” Wilbur says, “and when I met Jan, her dedication was obvious. It takes a special person to monitor nest sites for days at a time in such rough country. To have someone like Jan out there was really important for our research.”

Meanwhile, political pressure mounted for a comprehensive program to save the bird under the Endangered Species Act, passed in 1973. By 1980, a last-ditch effort took shape, co-sponsored by the FWS and Audubon.

Noel Snyder and John Ogden, experienced biologists who had worked with other endangered species, would lead the research program. The two recognized that Hamber’s condor knowledge and backcountry savvy were exactly what they needed. She now stood on the frontlines of one of the nation’s most critical conservation efforts. Snyder put her in charge of monitoring the Santa Barbara Pair, the mated birds that Smith discovered, and other nest sites. Through her careful observations, she helped make a crucial discovery: Condors can nest in successive years, a finding with significant implications for rebuilding the population by maximizing the egg production of the remaining wild birds.

In the early 1980s a young biologist named Bay Roberts joined the program as a nest watcher. “It was my first job out of college,” she says, “and Jan made me feel welcome.” The two struck up a lasting friendship. “Jan was utterly determined and committed to the conservation of condors,” Roberts says. “She was willing to endure any inconvenience or hardship to do the work, and she did it with such kindness and grace.”

In 1984 came a discovery that changed everything. After a seemingly healthy condor dropped dead, a necropsy revealed a tiny lead-bullet fragment in its intestinal tract. Tests showed it died from lead poisoning. Here at last was an explanation for the high mortality rate. Condors feed only on dead animals, and if they consume lead-bullet fragments in the carcasses, it can be fatal.

A second bird died from lead poisoning, and then, in 1986, the female of the Santa Barbara Pair became desperately ill and tested positive for lead. Zoo veterinarians did their best but to no avail. “Watching her die was horrible,” Hamber says. Her death changed the direction of the program. To protect the last wild condors from lead poisoning and preserve genetic diversity, the team decided to try to capture the remaining birds.

On an April evening in 1987, Hamber stepped into a phone booth at a gas station a hundred miles northwest of Los Angeles, debating whether to place the most consequential call of her career. 

She had spent the day in nearby wilderness tracking the last wild California Condor, AC9 (Adult Condor 9), as he slow-danced across the sky. When he disappeared from view, she got in her pickup truck, deployed a handheld antenna, and followed the signal from a tiny transmitter attached to AC9’s wing. She watched as he circled over a stillborn calf carcass the recovery team had set out as bait. But he did not feed and finally flew to a nearby roost site for the night.

Hamber knew AC9 would likely return the next morning, and could be caught then. She was also acutely aware that all the condors in the world—26 birds—were housed at the San Diego and Los Angeles zoos. Now she must decide: Call the trapping team and initiate the capture of the last individual of a highly endangered species—or let this final bird fly free.

The untested captive-breeding plans represented the species’ final hope, and Hamber understood that with so few birds left, every one counted. But trapping AC9 would mean that for the first time in tens of thousands of years, North American skies would be devoid of condors. By taking AC9 into captivity, they weren’t just trapping an individual bird—they were capturing an entire species.

Her head said yes; her heart said no. She wondered if any other human had faced such a dilemma. At last Hamber deposited two quarters and put the receiver to her ear.

By dawn half a dozen condor team members had arrived to prepare the trap site. Just as Hamber expected, in midmorning AC9 landed and cautiously approached the calf carcass. A scientist hiding in an underground blind fired a net over the bird. This last wild condor, a bird Hamber had watched from birth, a magnificent creature that could fly 150 miles in a day with hardly a wing flap, now huddled in a pet carrier.

Later Hamber wrote up her field notes, ending with three short sentences: 10:10, cannon fired. AC9 caught. The end. Then she put her head in her hands and let the sorrow wash over her.

After all the years of field work everything now depended on condors breeding in captivity—something never done before. Six months passed without a hint of progress. Then a male bird began courtship displays, but his female partner wasn’t interested. Finally, just over a year after a net ensnared AC9, the first captive-bred chick was born. More births followed, and by 1992 there were more than 50 condors, enough to allow a few young birds to start being released into the wild.

During the first years of captive breeding, when no condors flew free, Hamber had no field work. She was nearing 60, a time when many people think about retirement, but she wanted to do more. When she learned that the vast collection of field notes and reports on condors needed someone to organize and manage them, she phoned the biologist with this jumbled treasure trove.  “I’m usually a quiet person,” she says, “but I told him, ‘I am the only one who can and will do this.’ ”

She established the Condor Archives at the museum and began the painstaking, decades-long task of organizing thousands of documents into a searchable database. As the program successfully released captive-bred birds into the wild, she went into the field to help monitor them. But the archives were, and remain, her top priority. When additional materials are uncovered from the early days, Hamber adds them to the records. She also fields questions from biologists who rely on her comprehensive knowledge of the last wild birds, from their behaviors to the location of old nest sites.

Hamber also draws upon her experience to mentor other women scientists. Today many of her colleagues are women—as are nearly half of all biologists working in the country. Yet gender bias persists in biology and other scientific fields where achieving parity has been slower. Moreover, income for female scientists lags that of their male counterparts. With the challenges she experienced in mind, Hamber supports and pushes women in science to do the work they love.

Myra Finkelstein, an environmental toxicologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), drew inspiration from Hamber. Finkelstein has played a pivotal role in proving that released condors suffer from repeated, widespread lead poisoning, principally from lead ammunition. “Jan is one of those people who I aspire to be—incredibly knowledgeable but also incredibly generous with her knowledge,” she says. “She was one of the first people in the ‘condor club’ of scientists who immediately made me feel welcome and valued. Jan is the person we contact if we have any questions about the history of the last wild condors. Her firsthand experience has been essential in aiding our research.”

In 2017 the FWS honored Hamber with its prestigious Trailblazing Woman in Science award. “That award means a lot,” Hamber says. “It was an acknowledgment of the struggles I faced trying to make my way as a woman in the world of biology.” The award ceremony featured dozens of letters of appreciation from women scientists, including Zeka Glucs, program director of UCSC’s Predatory Bird Research Group. “Jan Hamber has always been up there with the legends of raptor research, a skilled naturalist who was a key player in the early condor recovery effort,” Glucs wrote. “We are lucky she continues to teach and inspire new generations of biologists of all genders.”

Hamber has no plans to stop the mentoring and archival work she loves. “Retirement,” she says, is not a word in her vocabulary.

The first releases of captive-bred condors were a triumph for the program. But with no adults to guide the immature birds, many ran into trouble. Power-line collisions and electrocutions killed several, while others exhibited strange behaviors and hung around human habitations. The problems grew so dire that the released condors were temporarily recaptured while the program rethought its methods.

Biologists retrained condors to avoid utility lines using mock power poles that gave a mild shock when a bird landed. Also, young birds were kept in captivity longer to better prepare them for release, and chick-rearing techniques were modified to replicate more closely the nesting practices of wild condors.

Eventually the early problems largely disappeared, and today there are more than 500 condors in the world, according to the most recent estimate, from 2019. More than half of the birds, which can live for 60 years, are flying free. From the first captive-bred birds released north of Los Angeles, condors have slowly reclaimed the skies over California, Arizona, Utah, and northern Mexico. Unfortunately, the primary menace, lead-bullet fragments, still poisons and kills the birds. Because of this persistent threat, all condors are tagged and tracked and their lead levels are regularly tested so poisoned birds can be treated and released when they’re healthy.

Last year California implemented a statewide ban on lead bullets for hunting. It’s too soon to say how effective the ban has been, but until lead is removed from the condor’s environment, experts say, the species will not fully recover, regardless of the program’s other successes.

Hamber still carries the painful memory of the lead-poisoning death of the Santa Barbara Pair female. Recently, an unlikely development in the mountains north of Santa Barbara has softened this lingering sadness. A male offspring of the Santa Barbara Pair was one of the last condors taken into captivity. Upon his release, in 2015, at a wildlife refuge near Bakersfield, AC4 flew straight back to the Santa Barbara canyon where he was born nearly 35 years earlier. “Two years ago, he and his mate produced the first condor chick in our area in decades,” Hamber says.

That’s the same region where on a winter morning four decades ago Hamber took her first steps as a field biologist. It’s a rugged hike up to AC4’s cliffside nest site, one that Hamber no longer attempts. Still, she can picture AC4 standing on the sandstone ledge on a warm afternoon, spreading his regal wings and sailing skyward until he is cruising more than a mile in the air. To the south lie the Channel Islands; far to the northeast Mount Whitney crowns the Sierra Nevadas. And below are the cliffs and canyons where condors have dwelled for thousands of years. “It’s a comfort to know AC4 has come back home,” Hamber says. “There were a number of years where it seemed likely that we would lose the California Condor. AC4’s return validates all the hard work we did.”

Hamber doesn’t say it aloud, but AC4’s homecoming also bears witness to the long-ago dreams of that 10-year-old girl who defied the conventions of her time, spread her wings, and became a biologist. Her voice softens. “After all the effort, seeing that bird flying free and nesting in the same canyon where he was’s a beautiful circle.”

This story originally ran in the Fall 2020 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.​