Yves here. I must confess that even though I knew that the California condor was endangered due to lead poisoning (the perils of being high on the food chain), I had no idea their numbers had collapsed so far. As you’ll see, it’s been a long-term, concerted effort to preserve the condor and the Yuroks have played a crucial role.
By Sharon Levy, the author of “The Marsh Builders,” and “Once and Future Giants: What Ice Age Extinctions Tell Us About the Fate of Earth’s Largest Animals.” She’s written for Nature, New Scientist, BioScience, and Undark, among other outlets. Originally published at Undark
Top: A California condor at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Visual: San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance
The first California condor to reach Yurok ancestral land in over a century arrived by plane and car in late March of 2022. The small plane that carried Condor 746 had a rough landing, and the bird was irritable. He rattled around in a large dog crate during the three-hour drive to the tribe’s newly-built condor facility, in a remote location in Redwood National Park.
Once there, he hopped into the flight pen, a tall enclosure of wire mesh, furnished with log perches and a drinking pool. At 8 years old, Condor 746 is an adult, his naked head bright pink instead of the black found in younger birds. He’s on loan from the captive breeding program at the Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho. His job is to act as the mentor for four juvenile birds who will become the founders of a reborn condor society in Yurok country.
“We have mentors because condors are so social,” says Joe Burnett, California Condor Recovery Program Manager at the Ventana Wildlife Society. Young birds in a pen with no adult will become unruly. “You get the Lord of the Flies syndrome,” says Burnett. He and his colleagues quickly learned that release programs need an adult to serve as a role model and enforce the social hierarchy that is crucial to the flock’s survival.
A few days after 746 arrived, Condor A0, age 2, entered the flight pen. The first thing she focused on was 746, lounging on a perch. Understanding that she was in a safe place, A0 checked out the food — the carcass of a stillborn calf — then flapped onto a perch and fluffed up her feathers, a sign of avian contentment. Three young male condors, tagged A1, A2, and A3, followed. The youngsters had been living together for months at other condor facilities in Boise, Idaho, and San Simeon, California, and they already felt at home with each other.
Condor, known as prey-go-neesh in the native language, is sacred to the Yurok people. The Yurok reservation lies along the Klamath River in northwest California, but much of the tribe’s ancestral land is now in the hands of government agencies or private landowners. The tribe has been working to bring back the California condor since 2003, when a group of elders identified the bird as a keystone species for both culture and ecology, and therefore the most important land-based creature in need of restoration.
Nineteen years after the Yurok made that bold decision, the condors arrived. Elders who had worked toward that pivotal moment watched as Tiana Williams-Claussen, director of the Yurok Wildlife Department, and her colleagues released each newcomer into the pen.
Williams-Claussen’s job is to understand the details of condor biology and to interpret Yurok culture for the wider world. A tribal member, she grew up on the coast near the mouth of the Klamath, and went off to Harvard University. She didn’t set out to be a condor biologist, but when she returned in 2007 with a degree in biochemical sciences, condor restoration was the work her people needed her to do. Williams-Claussen has since spent 14 years living and breathing condors, learning how to handle them, building partnerships with government agencies, and listening to what Yurok elders have to say about the great bird.
The California condor is a critically endangered species: In the 1980s, the total population dwindled to fewer than 30 individuals. Biologists concluded the species’ only chance of survival lay in capturing every living condor in order to breed the birds in captivity, safe from poisons and power lines.
Reintroducing condors to the wild proved difficult, however, and the process became a dramatic lesson for biologists on the importance of parenting and the slow pace of growing up among these long-lived, highly social birds. Scientists learned that time spent with adults was critical to the behavioral development of young condors. They also found that in a species where adults follow and protect their offspring for a year or more after the birds fledge, youngsters pioneering landscapes empty of condors require lots of human babysitting.
When European and American explorers first reached western North America, California condors thrived from British Columbia to Baja California, and as far inland as the eastern face of the Rockies in Alberta. Majestic creatures with wingspans of more than 9 feet, weighing up to 25 pounds, with bald heads and long feet, condors captured human attention. Members of the Lewis and Clark expedition called them “the beautiful Buzzard of the Columbia,” and described the great birds thieving body parts from fresh-killed game.
In the Pacific Northwest and California, Indigenous people understood condors as beings of great spiritual power. Their shed feathers were used by the Yurok, Wiyot, and other tribes in ceremonies to treat the sick. The Pomo, Miwok, and Maidu performed condor dances.
But the arrival of White settlers proved deadly for condors and native peoples alike.
While the tribes suffered genocidal attacks and epidemics, the condors were indiscriminately shot, their eggs taken by collectors. Many were poisoned by cyanide or strychnine-laced carcasses settlers put out as bait for wolves and bears. Because condors are deeply social and help each other locate food, the discovery of a poisoned carcass by one bird could result in the deaths of many.
The last reliable report of a condor north of San Francisco was recorded in 1904. By the mid-1900s, the great birds survived only in a slender horseshoe of habitat in the mountains of southern California.
As the last surviving condors died off at a rapid rate, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made the decision to take the birds into captivity, and breeding programs were established at the Los Angeles Zoo and San Diego Wildlife Park. The last free-flying condor, a male known as Igor, was captured in 1987. At the time, some observers were appalled. Captive-raised condors, they said, would never learn to live as their ancestors had.
“To save it, the condor was destroyed,” environmentalist David Brower told a reporter.
A close brush with extinction is something the condor shares with the Yurok people. Yurok country was inundated with settlers starting in 1850, when gold was discovered there. By the end of the Gold Rush, 75 percent of the Yurok had died from massacres and disease. Large swaths of their lands had been devastated by logging. Government agents and missionaries tried to force native people to discard their language, culture, and religious beliefs. Yurok children were taken from their parents and placed in boarding schools in Salem, Oregon, and Riverside, California. There they were forbidden to speak their own language and suffered many forms of abuse.
A condor chick is reared by a hand puppet. Visual: San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance
“It was just overall a time of major upheaval and destruction,” Williams-Claussen says.
The Yurok, like several neighboring tribes, believe the Creator long ago set them the task of working to repair and rebalance the world. Sacred ceremonies including the White Deerskin Dance are vital to this process. “Condor gave us the song,” explains Williams-Claussen. “Condor provides the feathers and the spirit for the dance, carries our prayers to heaven when we ask for balance.”
Sometime at the turn of the 20th century, just as the last condors vanished from Yurok land, the White Deerskin Dance was performed in secret, hidden away from government agents who punished the observance of native traditions. Decades passed, and many of the people who had danced and sung in the ceremony died.
In 1978, Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, guaranteeing the right to religious expression and access to traditional lands for ceremonies. But by then generations of Yurok had been traumatized and forced away from their own traditions. It wasn’t until the 2000s that the White Deerskin Dance was revived, with the help of a Yurok man Williams-Claussen called “one of the eldest of our elders.” (In Yurok culture, people who have died are not mentioned by name.)
This man was one of the few survivors who had danced the White Deerskin Dance himself, and who remembered Condor’s importance in the ceremony. He began by teaching people the Condor song. In 2003, he was a member of the council of elders who decided the tribe should work toward bringing the California condor back to Yurok country.
Condor reproduction in the wild is slow and deliberate — they can live to be 50 or older, and like other long-lived animals, their development takes time. The birds reach sexual maturity between the ages of 6 to 8. Couples mate for life, and the female lays a single egg every other year. To rebuild the population as quickly as possible, staff at captive breeding programs at the Los Angeles Zoo and San Diego Wildlife Park manipulated the nesting process. They’d take a pair’s first egg away to be warmed in an incubator, inducing the birds to produce a second egg. The adult condors would raise one chick while keepers fed the other with hand puppets built to look like condors.
The first condors reintroduced to the wild were all reared by puppets. They quickly ran into trouble. The young birds, which had been released at the Sespe Condor Sanctuary in southern California, were fascinated with humans and human-made structures. They tore the rubber window seals off fire trucks, and approached people without fear. These habits put the condors in danger, and their death rate was high — often the result of collisions with power lines.
The problem became painfully obvious in the late summer and fall of 1999, when about half the free-flying condors moved into the village of Pine Mountain Club, 50 miles northwest of Los Angeles. The condors gathered on roof tops and shredded deck furniture. In one incident, Les Reid, a former Sierra Club board member who had opposed the capture of the last wild condors, heard a ruckus in his upstairs bedroom. He found eight condors ripping apart his bed, having torn through the screen door. They left when Reid admonished them.
The captive-bred condors released in the early 1990s were just uneducated, says Mike Clark, Condor Keeper at the Los Angeles Zoo: “They had no idea what danger looked like and had no other birds or parents to teach them. Condors make their living investigating things that might end up being food. Birds ended up approaching novel stimuli, including humans, because they simply didn’t know any better.”
After keepers added a dummy power pole to condor enclosures, which administered a mild electric shock when the birds perched on it, they learned to avoid power lines. But the fascination with humans and the failure to understand basic condor etiquette were signs of a more profound problem. Those first reintroduced birds were released too young, and had not had contact with adults who could teach them how a condor behaves.
“They were under a year old,” remembers Chris West, the Yurok Tribe’s senior wildlife biologist, who began working with condors in 1999. In the wild, “the parents would slowly work with that bird, introduce it to social feeding situations with other condors and other scavengers,” he adds. “I don’t think it really dawned on people how important that was.”
Early on, efforts to reintroduce California condors followed the lead of an effort of the New York Zoological Society with Andean condors. That project had released captive-bred youngsters to the wild in Peru at just 5 or 6 months old. The Andean condors did well — because they joined an existing wild flock. In California, the wild birds had all been placed in captive breeding programs, “so the chicks were released into a vacuum,” explains Clark.
In the wild, a condor chick’s only companions for its first few months are its mother and father. “By the time the chick is 6 months old, it knows every emotion, face expression, body language, and the differences between all of these things between its parents,” notes Clark. The adult birds react differently to the arrival of a potential threat, like a golden eagle, than they do to a jay. “The chick understands whether its parent is content, irritated, or angry and can associate the sight of these stimuli with their parents’ emotions,” he adds. “This shapes their own opinions of other animals they encounter and helps them navigate the environment.”
A portion of the Big Sur flock is seen perched on rocks. Visual: San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance
When the Ventana Wildlife Society undertook to start a separate population of condors at Big Sur, on the central California coast, their first releases had to be recaptured. These birds had been raised without condor parents, and like their southern California counterparts, they were fascinated with human-built objects and clueless about reasonable condor behavior. In a second attempt, a cohort raised by captive condors was released to the Ventana Wilderness in the fall of 1997, and did much better. These condors avoided people, and all of them were in good health two years after their release.
Because time with adult condors is so critical to the healthy development of young birds, keepers have gotten creative finding ways to provide it. At the Los Angeles Zoo, staff have found that a captive condor pair can successfully raise two chicks — a situation never seen in wild condors. If a pair in the wild have an infertile egg, it’s replaced with a live egg laid in captivity. Recently, the Peregrine Fund’s captive breeding program has found that unpaired adult condors can successfully foster chicks solo.
Over time, field biologists have learned how to give condors the best chance at a life in the wild. One strategy was simply to wait to until the birds were 2 or 3 years old before releasing them. Another was to use a large flight pen — made of wire mesh that allows the young birds to scan their surroundings — to let them learn about their new home before release. Bringing in an adult mentor before the release of young birds has been a major improvement. The Yurok project staff also place carcasses outside the flight pen, to attract turkey vultures. Burnett says these smaller vultures were the “unsung heroes” of the first cohorts of condors released at Big Sur, leading them to food and good roosting sites.
THESE DAYS, CONDOR 746 can most often be found perched on a log that overlooks the green vista of Redwood National Park, studying the movements of the ravens and turkey vultures outside the pen. Now and then, in a moment of excitement, he grabs the wire mesh of the enclosure with his feet and flaps his wings. Most of the time, the condors are perched near each other, gazing out at the surrounding landscape, reading it with eyes that can see at high resolution over long distances. Condors have a poor sense of smell, but they possess what Burnett calls “almost bionic vision.”
Built into one side of the flight pen is an observation chamber made of two shipping containers welded together. Through two-way glass, West, Williams-Claussen, and other members of the Yurok tribe’s condor team take turns watching the birds, maintaining a strict silence so the condors don’t notice the presence of humans. It’s a critical task, for the biologists must get to know the condors well enough to understand when they are ready to leave the pen and take on life in the wild. A 12-hour shift requires both a passion for these unique birds and the patience of a Zen master.
The most dramatic interactions in a condor flock take place when the birds feed at a carcass. But since they can often go for two or three days without eating, most of the time the condors spend in the flight pen they don’t appear to be doing much of anything. “You’re on condor time,” explains Burnett. “They’re probably chatting away in their own language, in a nonverbal way. As biologists, we’re constantly trying to decode that nonverbal communication.”
By late April, the Yurok condor team felt sure the young birds were ready to fly. All the condors were at a healthy body weight, measured whenever they happened to perch on a log attached to a scale. They seemed confident when interacting with each other and with the mentor, 746. Williams-Claussen had decided on Yurok names for the first two birds to be released: A2 is Nes-kwe-chokw’, meaning “he who returns.” A3 is Poy’-we-son, “he who goes out ahead.”
The names proved prophetic. On May 3, A3 studied the door that had been opened using a remote-control rod, took a few small steps forward, then launched into the air. A2 followed moments later.
Since then, A2 has stayed near the condor facility. He feeds from the carcasses kept outside the flight pen. To get hungry turkey vultures out of his way, he spreads his wings and runs at them. He often comes right up to the wire wall of the pen and seems to talk with one of the three condors still inside it.
Upon release, A3 spread his impressive wings — the condor’s are the largest of any North American land bird — and went off to explore a bit farther. Now, the biologists track him using the satellite and radio transmitters attached to his wing. In the first few days after his release, A3 got pinned down by a storm that brought freezing rain, and hunkered down in a big Douglas-fir. Since the weather improved, he’s traveled as much as 7 miles from the condor facility. On May 17, he returned to the flight pen for the first time, and spent hours eating, preening, and roosting with A2.
A0 was released at noon on May 25. Her Yurok name is Ney-gem’ ’Ne-chween-kah, meaning “she carries our prayers.” She is doing well. A1 remains in the flight pen, awaiting the arrival of a replacement transmitter.
The condors’ gradual release is a strategy worked out by Burnett and his colleagues. The idea is to keep the young birds returning often to the flight pen, seeking out their friends still inside. This makes it much easier to monitor the birds’ health and to intervene if there are problems.
Biologists sometimes assist in the wild, too. Operating a condor body is not simple, and young birds learning to fly have been known to get trapped down in canyons where there’s not enough wind to lift them up. Wild youngsters have condor parents who bring them food and protect them until they can find their way uphill again and take off. Newly reintroduced condors rely on the vigilance of the biologists who watch over them. Condor biologists in Arizona have sometimes spent the night near a stranded fledgling in a canyon bottom, guarding the young bird until daylight when it can make its way up toward a ridge.
The condors must also be closely monitored and captured twice yearly for lead poisoning tests. Lead poisoning is now the greatest danger facing condors in the wild. Hunters who leave behind gut piles after taking a deer or an elk provide an important food source for the scavengers. But commonly used lead bullets fragment when they strike their target, scattering bits of lead through the animal’s body. A sliver the size of a pinhead can be enough to make a condor seriously ill, and a single carcass can contain enough lead to poison several condors.
Each year, 20 percent of free-flying condors are found to have blood lead levels high enough to put them at risk of acute poisoning. They undergo chelation therapy, a process that has saved many condor lives, but can require weeks spent in captivity.
On May 3, at around 10:30am, two condors were successfully released in Yurok Country.
If the elaborate interventions that rescue condors from lead poisoning stopped now, the population would crash. California condors will achieve sustainable wild populations only when the lead is removed from their food chain. That goal that will not be reached until hunters commit to using alternative nontoxic ammunition. Williams-Claussen, a hunter herself, believes the change will come, though she’s not sure she will see it in her lifetime.
Keeping condors alive and well until then will take hard work. For the Yurok people and the many condor fans who follow the tribe’s condor livestream, it’s all very much worth it.
“I have a four-year-old daughter,” Williams-Claussen says. “She is going to grow up with condors in her sky for her entire life. She is not going to know what it is to miss condors. She will always live in relationship with condors, which is really what this project is all about — bringing Condor home, back into our communities, back into our conversations, back into our households, and into the minds and hearts of our children on behalf of the hearts of our elders.”