Blessed are the zookeepers and the bird watchersand those who make documentaries about them. "Condor," at 8 Sunday night on Channel 26 and other public TV stations, concerns the graceful, endangered bird of the title, but the program also pays tribute to conservationists struggling to save it from extinction.
Only a few California condors still exist, some in the wild and some in careful captivity, but steps are being taken to ameliorate the harmful effects of human urban sprawl. "Condor," a National Audubon Society Special, details some of these, pausing as often as possible to gaze up at the magnificent birds in flight.
Robert Redford was an ideal choice to narrate this nature program, not because he starred in "Three Days of the Condor," but because he has a reputation as our most outdoorsy of leading men, and as someone conservationally conversant. He speaks with dignity and compassion.
But the script by Sharon Obst is a touch drier than even the faded brown-and-green California hills over which the condors fly, and it gets too broadly preachy near the conclusion. A lyrical montage of the birds in flight, accompanied by some ethereally aerial music, would have visually and more persuasively conveyed all that Obst sermonizes about.
Perhaps it was thought that with such a prestigious narrator on hand, there should be a steady flow of words to accompany the pictures. Bad thinking.
We get to see plenty of condors, however, as photographed by Wolfgang Obst. They swoop through the sky, go through a playful mating ritual, and peer down curiously at the researchers who are fussing about below with nets and binoculars and fancy equipment.
Condors are so scarce and the wild so full of perilous variables that conservationists snatch condor eggs from their nests and rush them off to the relative safety of laboratory incubation to ensure the survival of offspring. A dutiful team waits for the right moment to grab an egg, then carries it like a fragile heirloom to a helicopter for transport to the San Diego Wild Animal Park, where a condor research center is nicknamed the "condorminium."
What must the condors think of all this feverish activity? A condor who is captured briefly in a net -- so it can be outfitted with a radio transmitter for tracking -- registers hardly any objections and seems quite calm about the whole thing. Perhaps the condors know this is all part of a plan to keep them from vanishing off the face of an ever-less-hospitable earth.
Sitting under a hot box in the near-desert all day waiting for a condor to go for a calf carcass left as bait can't be fun. But these conservationists are dedicated. Saving the condor is saving a species that, says Redford, adds "variety and striking beauty to our world."
Those who made "Condor," including executive producer Christopher N. Palmer, appear dedicated, too. The film, previously shown on cable TV as part of a production agreement with Turner Broadcasting, is not nearly so slick or lavish as are the National Geographic Society Specials, and the sparseness of the musical background makes Redford's narration awfully lulling after a while. But the message certainly gets across, and "Condor," like the bird it extols, commands respect.