Mixed Emotions

Giving birds the best chance requires dedication—and a dose of resilience.
Close up of a condor chick with wrinkly, bald, pink head and neck and a fluffy, gray, downy body, sitting in a wooden enclosure with a feather on the floor in the foreground.
Milagra at 44 days old, being raised by foster parents. Photo: Karine Aigner

When photographer Karine Aigner got the text that the California Condor egg was hatching, she dropped everything and drove straight from High Island, Texas, to the Houston airport. Before long she was sitting next to the incubator at Liberty Wildlife in Arizona, watching as the fragile life it contained began to break out of its shell. “It was like being at a maternity ward,” she says. She looked up from her lens to see the key staff who had cared for the egg giddy, shedding tears, mouths agape. “It felt hilarious and heartwarming and sobering all at the same time.”

There was a lot of hope riding on that little condor. Just several hundred members of her species remain, and avian flu killed 21 of them this year—including the chick’s mother. To prevent the bird from imprinting on humans, Aigner chronicled her first weeks of life with utmost caution. She captured this issue’s cover using a remote camera positioned at a 3/4-inch peephole in the wall looking into a nest box at The Peregrine Fund in Boise. Aigner sat in the dark, as far from the setup as a cable allowed, waiting for the bird to walk into the frame as she fired her camera via a laptop.

The pressure on California Condors from an unprecedented avian flu outbreak is especially intense. But birds around the world, including common species, face a range of emerging and constantly evolving pressures. Willy Blackmore’s feature story explores how social media can inspire a surge of interest in birding, and the tipping point at which that attention may become harmful. Elsewhere in the issue we reveal with startling clarity how plastic pollution concentrates in areas where petrels migrate. And the war in Ukraine has forced both its people and its wildlife to adapt. Kristi Marciano’s reporting documents the lives of birders and scientists across the country who strive to carry on with their work. When photographing this story, Kasia Stręk took precautions to prioritize their safety as well.

While grappling with new challenges is daunting, we take heart that, like the people of Ukraine, birds have great capacity for resilience—especially if given some help. But to effectively buttress them, we, too, need to find moments of solace, levity, and even joy during tough times, as Aigner saw at Liberty Wildlife. While the fate of the condor chick isn’t certain, Aigner is hopeful that this is just the beginning of the young bird’s journey: “She’s such a badass little girl.”

This piece originally ran in the Fall 2023 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.