The California condor—Gymnogyps californianus—was once king of the Western skies. The giant vultures boast wingspans up to 10 feet and may live 60 years. However, these stately birds were almost extinct in the late 1980s. Still critically endangered, the condors are slowly making their way back from the brink. With the May 2022 release of two individuals by the Yurok Tribe and the Redwood National and State Parks, the California condor has at last returned to its former Northern California range after over a century of absence.
The California condor's journey has been a perilous one. The Gold Rush settlers trophy-hunted the birds. Their habitat vanished piece by piece. As scavengers, DDT and lead poisoning (from hunting ammunition) undermined the wild population across the 20th century. By the 1980s, only 22 birds remained in the wild. They were captured, and the California Condor Recovery Program began. Captive breeding is a strategy for species recovery; but, unfortunately, condors have a very slow rate of reproduction, and their young take six to eight years to reach sexual maturity. After 30 years, while they remain critically endangered, about 200 condors roam parts of their old territory.
On May 3, 2022, the Yurok Tribe and Redwood National and State Parks released two California condors raised by the Northern California Condor Restoration Program. The birds were bred in captivity but well-prepared by ingenious flight pens for life in the wild. The program even brought in a “loaned” adult condor to teach the younger birds life skills. The Redwoods used to be a critical part of the species' habitat, but they vanished from the region in 1892. The birds seem to have taken to the skies right away. Two more will be released in the future. The birds will be monitored to ensure they are thriving.
While the return of the condors is huge for the Redwood ecosystem, it is a monumental achievement by and for the Yurok Tribe. The condor, or Prey-go-neesh, appears in the Yurok creation story, the Tribe’s White Deerskin Dance and Jump Dance, and world-renewal ceremonies. Yurok Wildlife Department Director Tiana Williams-Claussen said in a statement from the Tribe, “I have a 3-year-old-daughter. 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.”
Today, DDT and lead remain threats to the condor, but the species is protected under state and federal law. As reintroduction efforts continue, hopefully this magnificent species will once more come to rule the skies. In the meantime, you can watch the Yurok Tribe's livestream of the condors visiting their pen.
The Yurok Tribe has released two California condors into the Redwoods of Northern California, where none have been recorded since 1892.