California’s condors will soon once again be soaring over ancestral Yurok lands in Humboldt County for the first time in over 100 years, thanks to a condor restoration project started by the tribe back in 2008.
The California condor is one of the largest and rarest birds in the world. With a wingspan up to 9.5 feet, these vultures once thrived on the West Coast.
Their long wingspan allowed them to soar up to 15,000 feet in the air and could be spotted from as far north as British Columbia, Canada, to Baja California, Mexico.
By the 1980s, the condor population plummeted to about 20, due to the birds eating meat poisoned by lead bullets.
Scientists started an aggressive breeding program to save the population from extinction, and today, there are about 330 condors in the wild, four of which are in captivity in Humboldt County due to the efforts of the Yurok Tribe.
Soon the tribe will release the birds to the skies over their ancestral lands for the first time in over 100 years after raising the birds for nearly 15 years.
“There’s just so much love for them in the [Yurok] community as well, which has completely buoyed us up and kept us going through the last 14 years,” Tiana Williams-Claussen, Director of the Yurok Tribe Wildlife Department, said on CapRadio’s Insight.
The return of the birds is not only an ecological milestone but also the return of a cultural and spiritual centerpiece for the Yurok people.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
On what led to the disappearance of condors
Unfortunately, as is often the story, it was largely human-caused problems for them. They had been relatively abundant in our region … they went all the way up to British Columbia at one time.
But with the huge influx of more people, there’s just a lot more human impacts … there’s people laying out poisoned carcasses for other species that [people] had concerns over, like wolves or bears, and the condors would eat them and die.
… [The] condor’s story is not a unique one. There was a lot of harvest of the foods they relied on — large game, like elk and deer and California sea lion and whales, so they didn’t have the food resources to continue to persist.
And there is the introduction of new and toxic chemicals.
Two of them that remain an issue today are lead contamination — which has been implicated through the use of lead ammunition. It’s a soft material and fragments heavily upon impact, which isn’t too much of a problem for most adult humans, but for condors … a piece as small as the head of a pin can kill one of these animals.
It will break into hundreds of pieces, get into a gut pile a hunter [would] leave behind, which is normally good food for a scavenger, but not when contaminated with lead.
That’s actually cost something like 50% of known morality for condors in the wild, even today in most recent years.
The other chemical is DDT … So these things can be addressed. For example, we stopped using DDT in our environment, and it’s only going to be a downward trend from there.
And there’s been a lot of support from the hunting community to transition to non-lead ammunition, which is nontoxic to these birds, but they definitely had their impact and unfortunately continue to have their impacts in certain areas.
On the history and significance condors have to the Yurok people
It’s hard for me to be brief because you have to start at the beginning of time for most stories.
But even before humans were really what we consider to be people of the world, the spirits or animals were the people of the world, and it was from them that we learned how to manage the world and keep it in balance.
And so one of the ways that we do this is through our world renewal ceremonies. We actually consider ourselves to be world-renewal people — that’s our foundational reason for existing, to keep the world in balance and healthy.
But back in the beginning of time, it was species like the condor who helped develop these ceremonies that we continue to see, that we continue to engage in today, providing us prayers, producing us parts of our regalia.
[The] condor, particularly … ecologically speaking, he actually flies higher than any other species in the entire North America, and so we believe that he carries our prayers over the world when we’re asking for the world to be in balance.
So he’s very foundational to our reason for being, so not having him come here as a part of our ecological community has been very difficult because it’s been hard to maintain a relationship with someone who’s been gone for well over 100 years, and that’s largely what drove us to start this initiative.
On why California condors are ecologically important
On why California condors are ecologically important
So California condors are an obligate scavenger, they only eat dead carcasses on the landscape versus something like an eagle, which can both kill food itself and scavenge for food.
Now that said, we do have our local scavengers, we do currently have our turkey vultures and our common ravens, but they’re, compared to condors, relatively small.
The ecological niche that condors fills is being able to really start the decomposition process for the very large animals that they like to feed on.
… It’s very common that you’ll walk along the beach and you’ll see these large, really, honestly, disgusting flooded California sea lion carcass — not to be rude or indelicate there — but condors go in, and they break through that tough skin, that thick blubber that smaller animals can’t.
Not only feeding themselves but also decomposing the animal and making the food more bioavailable to other scavengers to eat.
On when the condors will be released
I can tell you, [it's] very soon. It's a little bit of a biological complexity.
These are young birds. They are two- and three-years-old. We have four birds who we'll be releasing, one female and three males.
They are full size, they're full-grown, but they're still considered juveniles, and they came from the captive rearing facility, so they've actually never been out in the wild. So we're looking for a particular set of environmental factors to release them into it.
So one is the appropriate sort of weather. So some decent wind, but not a ton of wind, because this is going to be the first time they're flying out on their own — some good sun.
… We're looking for a time that kind of meets a multiplicity of environmental needs, but also making sure that the birds seem ready to go out themselves, and they're happy and healthy and ready to jump out. So hopefully, within the next two to three weeks, though, I don't have a specified day that it's going to happen yet.