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Wildlife Ecology Unit

Book Review

The Condor’s Shadow: The loss and recovery of wildlife in America
David S. Wilcove
1999, W.H. Freeman and Company, New York, 339 pp
ISBN 0-7167-3115-0

The Condor’s Shadow  contributes a major step toward filling a void in the history of ecological change in the United States.  In his Acknowledgments, author David Wilcove compares his book with Peter Matthiessen’s Wildlife in America, a classic history of human impacts on wildlife populations.  While Wilcove patterned The Condor’s Shadow after Wildlife in America, he wanted to place greater emphasis on ecological relationships that were not well understood when Matthiessen’s book was published in 1959.  Wilcove has truly succeeded in his endeavor, and his emphasis on ecological context increases our understanding of the changes that have occurred in wildlife populations in our country since European exploration and settlement.  Wilcove successfully incorporated discussions of  ecological complexity at several geographic scales while offering a broad-brush perspective of wildlife population changes across the entire continent. 
The Condor’s Shadow is organized around broad geographic bioregions, within which Wilcove describes the most visible changes in ecology and wildlife populations that have occurred.  He begins with the area around his current home in Virginia: the Northeastern forests and woodlands, and moves from there to the west, where he highlights the lodgepole pine ecosystem of the greater Yellowstone area and the ponderosa pine forests of Arizona.  Later sections of his book cover the mid-continental grasslands, the major coastlines (including the historic wetlands of the Everglades and the bays and estuaries of California), the Appalachians, the southwestern deserts and northern Mexico, and the Hawaiian Islands.  The geographic coverage is primarily the United States, even though Wilcove alluded to a broader continental coverage in the book’s subtitle.  References to Mexico and Canada are only in association with border issues of the United States.
The central theme, repeated again and again for each bioregion, is the interplay of the “mindless horsemen of the environmental apocolypse”…”overkill, habitat destruction, exotic animals, and diseases carried by exotic animals” as identified by E. O. Wilson in The Diversity of Life.  Wilcove illustrates how these factors affect the complex relations of species with their competitors, predators, and habitats.  He clearly demonstrates that species recovery will usually fail when necessary ecological relationships are ignored.  This is an important message to the general American populace who often naively believe that captive breeding and reintroductions are sufficient for bringing back America’s wildlife.  
Wilcove’s familiarity with the ecology of each of the bioregions enriches and enhances the recitation of ecological change.  He intersperses historic facts and rigorous science with personal experiences and perspective.  From searching in vain for the Hawaiian ‘o’o to seeing the last free-flying condor prior to their capture in the mid-80’s, his experiences remind us that the loss of wildlife in America occurs at the scale of the individual human as well as that of the bioregion.
Although this book is written for the educated layperson, the well-studied ecologist has much to gain from The Condor’s Shadow.  We tend to focus on our own special emphasis areas within perhaps one or two bioregions of this vast continent.  These pages hold opportunities to learn about the life cycle of native freshwater mussels, the special habitat needs of the saltmarsh harvest mouse, the frustrated efforts to reestablish the masked bobwhite, and yes, the story of the condor’s recovery.  Read, learn, enjoy, and share.

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Wildlife Ecology Unit
Author: Christina D. Vojta
Expires: none

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