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California Condors and Native American Culture

California Condors and Native American Culture

These rare and magnificent birds play an essential role for the Yurok and other tribes around the state

Weighing more than 20 pounds and with a wingspan of nearly 10 feet, the majestic California condor is North America’s largest terrestrial bird. These carrion fowl once ranged across North America before becoming limited to an area from British Columbia to Baja California. California condors nearly went extinct, but the population is slowly rebounding thanks to an intensive captive breeding project that began in the late 1980s. From a population of just 45 birds in 1977, now nearly 350 condors live in the wild, with another 200 or so in captivity.

In Yurok Country along the North Coast, the Yurok Tribe is helping the condor recovery effort. The tribe launched the Yurok Condor Restoration Program in 2008 and released its first birds onto tribal lands in 2022.

Beyond their environmental significance, California condors play an essential spiritual role for the Yurok and other tribes around the state. As Valentine Lopez, tribal chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, which has collaborated with the National Park Service on condor (wasaka in the Mutsun language) projects at Pinnacles National Park in Monterey and San Benito counties, put it, “For our tribe, the condor is a very sacred bird. The condor, because of its size and strength, can fly higher and farther than any other bird. In our beliefs, when we pass, we pass over to the other side. And for us, ‘the other side’ means the other side of the ocean.

The condor is the only bird that is strong enough to fly to the other side. To our ancestors. The condor would carry our messages and our prayers to our ancestors who had passed and bring their messages back to us. So the condor is a very important messenger between our ancestors, the spiritual world, and our people.”

Visit Native California, Condor

A Sacred Bird

Condors are indeed remarkable birds, not only for their size and rarity, but for their skills as flyers. According to the National Park Service, condors can reach speeds of 55 mph and soar at altitudes up to 15,000 feet. Much of their time in the air is comparatively effortless as the condors gracefully glide on thermal updrafts for hours at a time. They can live for more than 50 years, assuming they’re able to survive the host of modern-day threats that nearly drove them to extinction: poisoning by lead shot, pesticides, collisions with power lines, and poaching. Now, an outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza poses a new danger for the condors.

The prominence of condors to Indigenous peoples is evident at sites throughout California, according to Wings of the Spirit: California Condor, a study on the California State Parks website written by John W. Foster, a onetime senior state archaeologist.

Describing the cultural significance of condors in centuries past, Foster writes, “It is apparent that California condors held a special place in the lives and ceremonies of California natives. It was a revered creature, a master of the spirit, who gave power to humans for a variety of world renewal and cosmic purposes. It was associated with death and mourning as well as rebirth and renewal.”

In the Yokut territory of Tulare County in the Central Valley, a large pictograph depicts a condor on the ceiling of a granite cave, while condors also appear in rock art on ancestral Chumash lands in Santa Barbara County. Tribes, including the Wiyot in Humboldt County and the Maidu of the state’s Shasta Cascade Region, crafted elaborate capes made of condor feathers for ceremonial use. Foster also describes condor ceremonies conducted by such Southern California tribes as the Tongva, Cahuilla, Kumeyaay, and Cupeño.

The Yurok call condors prey-go-neesh, says Tribal Chairman Joseph James, and today the birds remain an important part of the traditional culture. “The condor provides our prayers and we use condors to carry our prayers into the high country,” he says. “They’re part of our circle of life and the balance of the natural world. For us, everything’s about maintaining that balance.”

Condors Return to Redwood Country

The Yurok tribe works in conjunction with such agencies as U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Redwood National and State Parks as part of the California Condor Recovery Program. According to senior wildlife biologist Chris West, the tribe’s effort to bring back condors dates to the late 1990s and early 2000s when a group of elders identified the birds’ return to Yurok territory as a top priority.

“At that point, the question became, ‘How do me make something like this happen?’ There was effort put into fundraising and the first actual funding was received in 2008. That was when things started. But it has been a long slog considering that we only released our first condors last year,” says West.

Bringing condors back to Yurok lands wasn’t as simple as getting a few birds and letting them fly out on their own. West says that while the tribe was committed to returning condors to the wild, the Yurok know better than anyone just how much the landscape has been altered since the beginnings of Euro-American settlement and the advent of federal management of so much of the surrounding lands. “There was really a strong interest in making sure whether this heavily altered landscape was still going to be a good home for condors. Because condors disappeared at some point,” says West. “We had to ask what was it that caused that disappearance? And whether we can make sure that this is still a good place for condors to come back to.”

The tribe conducted analyses to determine whether condors would have sufficient roosting and foraging habitat, and also looked at potential contaminants in the environment. It was determined that the habitat was still suitable for the birds and that what wiped them out was likely lead poisoning, which results when condors feed on carcasses of animals killed by hunters using lead shot. West says a major component of the Yurok program has been to work with the hunting and ranching communities to reduce the use of lead shot to reduce the risk to condors and other animals in the area.

It wasn’t until March 2021 that a finding was issued allowing the Yurok to move ahead with their condor reintroduction program. West says the tribe then broke ground for a reintroduction facility on national parkland and finally received its first condors for release after finishing construction.

The Yurok’s four-acre release facility, with its flight pen, observation structure, pools for bathing and drinking, and a smaller release pen, is at about 2,000 feet of elevation and 10–15 miles from the coast. It’s surrounded by a fence to keep such predators as mountain lions and bears out. There are shock-wired power poles to condition condors not to perch on poles and near electrical lines after they’re released.

“Condors have really good memories,” says West. “And at one point, power line collisions were the leading cause of mortality in released condors. Since the institution of shock-wired aversion training power poles, it has dropped down to almost zero.”

While you might expect a bird that relies on scavenging to be relatively uncomplicated, condors are actually highly curious creatures and have complex social structures in which young birds learn about territories and foraging areas both from their parents and the larger flock. Condor pairs only breed every other year and put considerable investment into their offspring, says West, before the younger birds gradually begin to flock with other juveniles—all of whom bring knowledge they have gained from their own parents to the other members of the group.

“People in the condor world refer to it as condor culture,” says West. “And if there’s a condor culture established at a site, it makes things easier on the released birds. But if there’s no condor culture, they basically have to develop it on their own.”

West says the Yurok plan to conduct two releases of captive-bred condors per year. The program clearly has faced challenges over the years but there’s no minimizing its significance, both for the Yurok people and the future of California condors in the region.

“We’re really proud,” says Yurok Tribal Chairman James. “Because it has been over 100 years since the California condor has lived here.”