This article was originally included on High Country News.
A dead seal washes the coast of Northern California. Ravens and turkey vultures peck at his eyes and tail, but they are not strong enough to pierce the dirty carcass. For this, they will need the help of the largest land bird in the Western Hemisphere: the condor. With feathers as long as your femur and the weight of a preschooler, a condor can hold a large carcass and tear it apart with the torque of its hook-shaped beak. It may seem sinister from a Western point of view, but condors clean with an efficiency that other animals – including humans – cannot compare to. This is one of the reasons why the Yurok tribe has spent more than a decade working to bring them home.
For the Yurok people, the California condor, whose name is Yurok preygoneesh, embodies the spirit of renewal. He heads the cleaning lady’s sanitary crew: When you run away, everyone eats. But preygoneesh absent from this beach for over a century. Ravens and vultures have to look elsewhere for food. The seal carcass swells in the sun, wasted.
The decline of Preygoneesh accompanied the American push in the West in the mid-1800s, a clear victim of the usual suspects: habitat destruction, hunting for news from collectors, and killing out of inappropriate fear. Preygoneesh once ranged from what is now called Mexico, to British Columbia, from the Pacific to New York. Birds can travel 100-200 miles a day with a wingspan of 9.5 feet, which can take them up to 15,000 feet (2.8 miles), even higher than eagles. But by the 1980s, there were only 22 left, and their reach had shrunk as a reservation to a slice of sky over central and southern California. Because they declined so early, Western scientists have never been able to study healthy populations of condors in the wild. How their prosperity looks is a mystery.
Except for local communities such as Jurassic.
On an unusual winter day in late March, snowflakes piled up on the redwood branches, fluffy and silent one hour, rainy and riotous the next. But Turok Williams, director of Yurok’s wildlife department, was confident that the tribe’s four growing condors could handle the times. They had just arrived from the Ventana Wildlife Society in Monterey, which keeps them until the tribe completes its own condor barn.
Tribal President Joseph L. James spoke to the press as a rain of snares spread over the canopy overhead. “This is a historic moment in the Yurok tribe, when we present our condors at home to fly back across the sky, providing that balance for us,” he said. Vice President Frankie Myers followed suit, saying it required work for generations and made Yurok’s grandparents’ dream come true. “This is how the government should represent its people,” Myers said.
Standing next to the tribal leadership were Redwood National Park Governor Stephen Mitz and Victor Bielajak, North Coast Governor of the Redwoods California State Parks, representatives of the tribe’s original condor restoration partners. Many other agencies later joined, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which sent staff to help build the tribe’s condor facility.
The historic day also came with the help of some unlikely partners. PG&E, the energy company whose equipment Dixie Fire began last summer, donated $ 200,000 to the Yurok condor recovery program. Pacific Power, whose parent company owns the dams of the Klamath River, Yurok have fought to eliminate, also involved. Then there are local dairy farmers who donate stillborn calves to feed the young. The tribe even turned to timber companies, although Mietz said logging and other industries had damaged two-thirds of Redwood’s national and state parks, part of the Yurok’s ancestral homes.
“As we heal this landscape and return the condors and begin to restore the former majestic glory of the redwood forest, we are also healing our relationship and repairing our relationship with the original local people,” Mietz said. “We follow their example of how to manage the park to restore this very damaged landscape.”
The tribe and its partners built the pen from shipping containers, in part because they are fireproof. (In 2020, a wildfire in California killed 12 condors.) The facility is hidden in a discreet place and surrounded by an electrified fence. This protects preygoneesh not only from roaming predators, but also from well-meaning audiences, said biologist Chris West, the condor’s leading program manager, still showing a red finger wound where a fierce stump had taken a piece just days earlier.
A mentor bird – an 8-year-old adult condor with a bald red head – mingled with teenagers. “If you just throw a group of teenagers in an area and expect them to behave, at some point you may want to throw an elder there to straighten them up a bit,” West said. This is what happens to our bird mentor.
Condors are social animals, with a literal order of pecking that includes other, smaller cleaners. In the wild, a condor’s parents follow him to learn; here the mentor plays this role. Bait outside the pen attracts turkey vultures and crows, which allows condors to get used to the animals they will dine with in the wild.
Adolescents, a woman and three men, are aged 2 to 3 years. Some hatched at the Oregon Zoo, others at the Boise World Bird Center. And after their stay in Monterey, they had to acclimatize to the Yurok country and communicate for a few weeks before their release. There was no rush, West said. “It’s condor time.”
Adult condors reproduce slowly, laying only one egg every two years. And they face an extremely deadly adversary. Lead poisoning from ammunition, which contributed to the decline of preygoneesh, remains their number one killer, representing half of all known deaths of wild condors. A pin-sized piece of lead can paralyze Pregoneesh’s powerful gastrointestinal system, causing a painful death. “There are some indications that if we can get rid of the lead problem,” Williams said, “we could stop running condors.”
California banned lead ammunition in 2019. However, 13 condors died in the wild last year from lead poisoning. The tribe turned to hunters for information on alternatives, such as copper munitions. “85% -95% of the hunters we spoke to came to our events, saying, ‘I had no idea, and of course I would switch to unleaded,'” Williams said. “I’m not surprised by this, because I’m a hunter myself, I come from a hunting family.
Hunters, such as dairy farmers, utilities, loggers and park rangers, all seem to want to succeed. Yet the Yurok leadership is what united these unexpected allies in the name of renewal.
According to Williams, the main reason for the existence of the Yurok people is to keep the world renewed and balanced. She said preygoneesh is a critical part of Yurok’s 10-day Jump Dance, a global renewal ceremony that uses feathers and songs from preygoneesh. Every other year, before the ninth full moon, participants fast and pray, dance and sweat. “We are praying for our river, we are praying for our streams, we are praying for our salmon,” said President James. HCN. “We pray that our condor will return home.”
One morning in early May, a live broadcast on Yurok showed two of the little ones jumping to the edge of the release door and flying past a corpse of bait. They will build their mental map around this place as a key place to return for food and communication.
The tribe will not stop with these four birds: A new cohort arrives later this year, and West hopes to release four to six birds each year for the next 20 years, a total of 80 to 120 birds from the site.
“Our prayers have been answered. They’re coming home now, “James said with a smile. “It would be the icing on the cake, to be able to dance and make a condor fly over us. It will happen.”
Inside the Yurok Tribe’s mission to make critically endangered condors thrive