Shared from the 4/13/2022 San Francisco Chronicle eEdition

100 years later, condors are back

Northern California tribe helping re-establish birds in region

Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle

A juvenile California condor perches in a pen at Redwood National and State Parks in Humboldt County. The Yurok Tribe brought four birds from the Central Coast for reintroduction to Northern California.

By the Numbers


Number of California condors in the wild in Western states in the 1980s


Condors currently living in the wild, with roughly 200 others in captivity

6 years

How old most condors must be before they can reproduce

60 years

Life span of the California condor, one of the world’s longest-living birds

Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle

Juvenile California condors are being kept in a reintroduction pen at Redwood National and State Parks near Orick (Humboldt County) until they are released. The Yurok Tribe is helping to re-establish the birds in Northern California, where they haven’t flown in more than 100 years.

The California condor, one of the rarest and most majestic birds on the planet, hasn’t flown over Northern California for more than a century. That will soon change.

Members of the Yurok Tribe recently transported four condors, secured in dog crates in the back of SUVs, from the Central Coast to Redwood National and State Parks in Humboldt County, where they’re acclimating before being released into the wild later this month.

The effort is part of a larger bid to re-establish the endangered bird across the West after condor numbers slipped to just 22 in the 1980s. The effort is also meant to restore a small piece of Native American mythology.

“The absence of the condor left a spiritual hole in the Yurok community,” said Tiana Williams-Claussen, a wildlife biologist for the tribe, which considers the bird sacred and central to creation. “I was surprisingly emotional (when they arrived). These are the first condors that have been in Yurok ancestral territory in 100 years.”

The four young birds, which were bred in captivity, are being held in a pen constructed by tribal members on a ridge in the national park 300 miles north of San Francisco. The tall redwood trees that surround the site will soon be the snug spots where the juveniles roost. The winds that lash the ridge will help the condors take flight for the first time.

“The absence of the condor left a spiritual hole in the Yurok community. I was surprisingly emotional (when they arrived). These are the first condors that have been in Yurok ancestral territory in 100 years.”
Tiana Williams-Claussen, a wildlife biologist for the Yurok Tribe

The four share the pen with an older “mentor bird,” which maintains order among the group and teaches social skills to the 2- and 3-year-olds. The mentor will not be released but will remain at the site for the others to visit.

“This is an exciting time: adding one bird into the pen, then another, and seeing how they interact,” Williams-Claussen said. “We’ve been keeping eyes on them every day and are very much looking forward to the day we open the door and let them out.”

Condors were once numerous along California’s North Coast. Known for their impressive 9-foot wingspans that allow them to ride thermals up to 15,000 feet into the air, the continent’s largest flying bird previously lived as far north as British Columbia and south to Baja California.

Over the past century, however, hunting, habitat loss, power line collisions and especially lead poisoning from gun ammunition had its toll on the condor. As a scavenger, the bird commonly ingests spent bullet fragments when it feeds on the carcasses of deer, elk and other animals. The metal from the shredded bullets is quickly, and detrimentally, absorbed into the condor’s bloodstream.

With extinction looming, federal biologists made the decision several decades ago to capture what few individuals remained and try to regrow the species with a captive breeding program. The last wild bird was netted in 1987.

The decline of the condor was abetted by its relatively long transition to reproductive maturity, about six years, a period in which the young birds face myriad risks. Female condors, however, have the unique ability to reproduce asexually on occasion. The birds live up to 60 years.

Over the past few decades, condors have been reintroduced along the Central Coast, at Big Sur and Pinnacles National Park, and in Southern California as well as more recently in Arizona and Mexico’s Baja peninsula.

About 330 birds currently live in the wild, with roughly 200 others in captivity.

“When we started, there was no cookbook on how to release condors,” said Joe Burnett, senior wildlife biologist at the Ventana Wildlife Society in Monterey, who has been working on the re-establishment of the species for more than 25 years. “But these birds are genetically built to fit into the environment. They’re more inclined to do what they’re supposed to do (when they’re released) than what they’re not supposed to do.”

The four birds in Humboldt County were bred in facilities in Oregon and Idaho, but they stayed with Burnett at a condor sanctuary in San Simeon (San Luis Obispo County) for six months while the pen in Redwood National and State Parks was being built.

“It was great to have them there,” Burnett said. “These birds were exposed to a lot of older, wilder birds and there’s a lot of influence there. We joke about it: They learned how to talk condor.”

The location of the upcoming releases on the North Coast, Burnett said, is ideal because the new population, if successful, will eventually connect with birds on the Central Coast, which have already connected with birds in Southern California.

At least a couple of Central Coast condors have made brief forays north to the Bay Area, including one from Pinnacles that flew to Mount Diablo last year.

While the condor population is growing, it still faces threats such as poaching and poisoning, including from lead ammunition, which has been banned in California but is still in use. In 2020, 12 condors were killed in an intentionally lit wildfire in Big Sur.

Working with the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Yurok intend to run their reintroduction program in Humboldt County for 20 years, releasing four to six birds annually. The go-ahead was given by U.S. Fish and Wildlife in March 2021.

“The Yurok is a leader in landscape stewardship,” said Ashleigh Blackford, condor recovery coordinator for U.S. Fish and Wildlife. “We are proud of this partnership.”

The tribe, with its ancestral homeland encompassing much of the North Coast and 5,000 enrolled members today, has been planning for the condor release for more than a decade.

“Our relationship with the condor goes back to the beginning of time,” said Williams-Claussen, with the Yurok. “Having condors (again) will restore balance.”

Kurtis Alexander is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @kurtisalexander

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