At an undisclosed location deep in the coastal mountains of northern California this past July, a two-year-old condor contemplates his fate. Raised in captivity, the condor, known only as A1, has not yet embraced his newfound freedom. The large black bird struts around the outside of the metal enclosure at the Yurok Condor Restoration Program’s condor release and management facility, slowly shifting his body weight from one leg to the other in an awkward, somewhat comical waddle. After a brief squabble with another condor, he playfully bounces up and down on a scale cleverly designed as a perch. Then, finally, in a leap of faith, A1 spreads his wings, which stretch nine feet across, and joins three companions (released in May), as they circle against a clear blue sky. They are the first California condors to soar over these lands in more than 100 years.
There is a lot riding on these birds. A1 and his companions (A0, A2, and A3) are the first group of birds so far released by the Yurok Condor Restoration Program. As part of a larger effort to rewild this temperate rainforest ecosystem, a group of elders of the Yurok Tribe decided almost 20 years ago that the California condor was the most important land animal to bring back to their ancestral territory, which stretches along the Klamath River from southern Oregon to California’s Pacific Coast. And since 2008, the tribe has partnered with the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) to restore a thriving, self-sustaining population of condors, which the Yurok call prey-go-neesh.
The Condor Song
A1’s reluctance to leave his enclosure isn’t all that surprising. As Robin Jenkins, a monitoring technician with the restoration program, explains, captive condors respond to unfamiliar objects with a high degree of skepticism. “Scavenging birds like condors have to make sure their food is actually dead,” she says. “It pays off to be both curious and cautious.”
An essential part of any healthy ecosystem, decomposition returns the dead to the earth, and condors help speed up the process. With their keen eyesight, robust beak, and nearly featherless head, the birds are supremely adapted to a life of eating carrion. As they rip open a carcass to feed themselves, they also make the meal more available to vultures and smaller scavengers.
Due to the associations many Indigenous cultures draw between condors and death and mourning, as well as birth and renewal, the birds fill numerous spiritual roles for members of the Chumash, Miwok, Pomo, and Yurok tribes of California. Tiana Williams-Claussen, director of the Yurok Tribe Wildlife Department, explains that the prey-go-neesh is central to the Yurok creation story and the tribe’s mission to heal the earth. Thus, the bird figures prominently in ceremonies, songs, and dances.
The World Renewal Ceremony, for example, takes place every other year, usually in fall, and honors the condor’s spirit to ensure abundant food and good health for the coming year. To perform the ceremony’s White Deerskin Dance, tribal members adorn themselves in condor feathers and sing the Condor Song, a type of prayer that connects “to the beginning of time, passed from generation to generation, linking one to the land and the community via a bond strengthened by millennia of prayers,” says Williams-Claussen. “The condor flies higher than any other species in our region, which helps him carry our prayers into the heavens when we are asking for the world to be in balance.”
A scarcity of condors
Two feet taller than bald eagles, California condors once soared over the West, from the Rockies to the Pacific Coast and from Canada’s British Columbia down to Mexico’s Baja California. By the mid-1800s, however, the population was dwindling due to a combination of habitat loss, pollution, shooting, lead poisoning, and the ingestion of trash. In 1982, there were only 22 condors left. Five years later, the species became extinct in the wild when the FWS trapped the remaining birds and brought them into captivity. Soon after, the San Diego and Los Angeles zoos launched ambitious breeding programs, and the estimated 550 California condors alive today all descend from those 22 “founders.”
The birds were in dire need of protection under the Endangered Species Act, and they are among the luckiest on the list. Along the West Coast, there are four captive breeding facilities operating in California, Idaho, and Oregon; in addition to the release site in Yurok territory, government wildlife agencies have established five others in Arizona, California, and Mexico. Every year, the sites release more young condors, and the results are promising as more of them go on to breed in the wild.
Still, condor reproduction is slow. They take six or more years to reach sexual maturity, and even if all goes well, a breeding pair produces just two offspring over three years. At the Yurok-operated condor release and management facility, veterinarians conduct regular checkups, while a team of biologists and technicians make sure the condors are exhibiting appropriate behaviors before their release. The team watches a live video feed in order to care for the condors in a manner that minimizes human contact. Program manager Chris West says, “We are trying to remain in the shadows, so to speak, so these birds don’t imprint on us.”
This is where Condor 746 comes in. Also known as Paaytoquin, 746 is an eight-year-old mentor bird on loan from the World Center for Birds of Prey in Idaho, and his job is to introduce the captive birds to condor life. “He will teach them how to socially interact in the dominance hierarchy and other condor etiquette,” says Jenkins, adding that young condors are prone to mischief, but the influence of an older, wiser bird can help increase survival rates after their release into the wild.
One thing condors can’t teach the next generation, however, is how to detect lead in a potential meal. Hunters shoot all sorts of animals with lead ammunition, and condors feed on almost anything that’s dead. And because bullets often shatter into pieces upon contact, a single contaminated carcass can kill several birds.
According to FWS, most of the condors monitored in the wild show signs of lead poisoning, and if found in time, the ill condors can undergo treatments to purge their digestive tracts. Veterinarians can also sometimes administer chelating agents that chemically bind to the lead and allow the bird to excrete the neurotoxin. Still, lead has been the culprit in 51 percent of the 234 wild condor deaths so far, where a cause of death could be determined. If not addressed, the use of lead ammunition for hunting will cause wild condor numbers to decline once more to the point of possible extinction.
“The detrimental effects of lead on vertebrate systems are well established in the scientific and medical literature, and due to these negative effects, humans have transitioned away from using lead in many products—paint, gasoline, and water pipes,” says Daniel Ryan, invasive-wildlife biologist and nonleaded ammunition specialist at Pinnacles National Park in central California. The same, he says, should go for lead bullets.
Thankfully, the country has been making some progress on that front. There has been a federal ban on lead ammunition for waterfowl hunting since 1991, and using lead bullets to kill wildlife has been outlawed in California since 2019. While they fall short of having actual laws on the books, Arizona and Utah do have voluntary lead reduction programs that distribute free, less toxic copper ammunition to those hunting within the range of California condors.
The Yurok Tribe adopted its own lead bullet policy in February that prohibits the use of such ammunition for the killing of wildlife or domestic livestock (except when an animal poses an immediate threat to humans and nonleaded ammunition is not available). In those cases, tribal members must safely dispose of the carcass.
Meanwhile, a coalition of zoos, state wildlife agencies, and hunting and conservation groups called the North American Non-Lead Partnership is working with hunters to encourage the use of nonleaded ammunition. Other organizations, including Sporting Lead-Free and the Oregon Zoo, also have hunter education and outreach programs. Whether these efforts can lower environmental lead levels to a point at which they are no longer an existential threat to condors and other scavengers remains to be seen, but Ryan is hopeful.
“Education is the most effective path to behavioral change,” says the biologist. “The success of lead mitigation efforts will come down to choices made by hunters and ranchers. As some of the first people in the country to push for the conservation of wildlife and wild spaces, this is just one more thing they can do to leave a healthier ecosystem for future generations.”
So far, life in the wild has gone well for A1 and his pals, the birds released by the Yurok Condor Restoration Program earlier this year. They don’t quit captivity cold turkey (technicians carry calf carcasses on their backs to designated feeding sites), but the gang has been exhibiting healthy condor behaviors (kudos to Condor 746!), including feeding, soaring, and finding safe places to roost. They’ve also been busy adjusting to the perks and annoyances of forest life—playing with an endless supply of sticks but also putting up with the mobbing tendencies of jays and ravens.
A second group of four condors arrived at the Yurok facility in August. The tribe released two of them (A4 and A5) in mid-October, and A6 awaits his turn later this fall. (Unfortunately, the group’s only female, A7, may need to wait even longer due to a medical issue.) The program’s long-term plan calls for the releases of one cohort of condors per year for at least the next two decades.
“Growing up, I did not know the significance of condors,” says Williams-Claussen. “This may sound strange, given that I have dedicated the last 15 years of my life to condor conservation.” One day, though, her four-year-old will tell a different story. “She will be amongst the first generation of Yurok children in a long time to live in direct relationship with condors.”
And in keeping with Yurok tradition, Williams-Claussen gave A1 a new name soon after his release. A1 is now Hlow Hoo-let, which is Yurok for “at last we fly.”
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