The Thunderbird Rises:

Hope for the Return of an iconic Species

Along the Path by Susan Rothrock Deo

“Hawks,” my husband said.

We were driving home from our first trip to the redwood parks in Northern California. We love watching hawks, so this was a bonus to the forests’ majesty. But there was something different about the three birds soaring over the meadow: so graceful, so HUGE. 

“Look at their wingspan! What ARE they?”

The park newsletter had the answer: “The condors are back.” 

“Condors! Their wingspan is nine and a half feet. A red-tailed hawk could fit on one wing!”

I’d read about condors years before we moved to California, but never imagined I’d see one in the wild. In the late 1800s they lived all the way from British Columbia to Baja California. By the mid-1900s only 30 remained in the wild. It was the first species protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1966. In hopes of saving the species, conservationists started a captive breeding program. They have reproduced successfully in captivity, but not enough survived when reintroduced into the wild to sustain a population.

In 2003 a group of Yurok tribal elders in northern California conceived a plan to reintroduce condors to their ancestral lands. The Yurok tribe, like several neighboring tribes, “believe the Creator long ago set them the task of working to repair and rebalance the world.” The California condor (the “thunderbird” of Native American tales) is considered sacred by the Yurok and many other indigenous cultures. The “prey-go-neesh” (condors) have been “spiritually tied to the Yurok…since the beginning of the world.” In May of this year, with their partners (including the National Park Service, California State Parks, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) the Yurok introduced a group of five condors in Redwood National Park. 

The California condor, Gymnogyps californianus, is the largest land bird in North America. They are thought to live about 60 years, but current high mortality makes this unclear. They are soaring birds, typically only flapping their wings during takeoff and landing. 

Condors are very social and spend most of their time roosting with other condors. They nest in existing cavities in cliffs or trees. Couples are monogamous, staying together much of the year. They lay only one egg and adults take turns brooding and feeding their young. The chicks hatch after two months and develop in the nest another six. Once fledged and flying, the chick follows the adults around, learning all it needs to survive. 

Condors are “obligate scavengers,” only eating carrion, the remains of dead animals. Because of their size and strength, they can easily tear open the hides of large carcasses, thus making the food available to smaller scavengers also. As an added environmental bonus, special bacteria in the condor’s digestive tract remove and neutralize a variety of bacterial toxins from the carrion, such as anthrax, botulism and cholera.

The Yurok’s reintroduction includes something new: mentor birds. One of the five condors is a few years older and will hopefully teach the youngsters how to survive. But there are still challenges, the biggest being lead contamination. It only takes a small amount of lead in a carcass (from a hunter’s ammunition) to poison a condor. Some birds are monitored for lead poisoning and can be treated, but this isn’t always possible. The state has eliminated lead from ammunition sold within California and is educating hunters about using lead-free ammunition. There is more work to do.

Seeing the condors will always be a special part of our redwood memories. I hope you get to see a “thunderbird” in the wild one day too!

More about the Yurok Condor Restoration Program:

Watch condors being prepared for release on live camera 

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