After more than a decade of preparation, the Yurok Tribe in California has released four critically endangered California condors in the redwood forests in the northern part of the state, an area that was once part of the birds’ historic range. The final condor of the four juveniles was introduced on July 14.
“For countless generations, the Yurok people have upheld a sacred responsibility to maintain balance in the natural world,” Joseph L. James, the chairman of the Yurok Tribe said in a statement in the days leading up to release. “Condor reintroduction is a real-life manifestation of our cultural commitment to restore and protect the planet for future generations. It is a historical moment in the Yurok Tribe, as we introduce our condors back home, providing that balance for us. Our prayers are answered.”
Weighing 23 pounds with a wingspan of 9.5 feet, California condors— or “prey-go-neesh” in the Yurok language—are North America’s largest flying land bird. They’re also one of the rarest. In the 1980s, the condor population fell to just 22 individuals because of human-caused factors including habitat loss, hunting, DDT and lead poisoning from spent ammunition. The last wild birds were captured for captive breeding, and the animal was declared extinct in the wild. After decades of breeding programs, reintroduced condors now live in parts of the Southwestern U.S. and Mexico. As of December 2021, the total population of California condors is 537.
"They are just this incredible comeback story, their conservation has been going on for decades now with countless individuals contributing to it with just so much love from the national and even international community," Tiana Williams-Claussen, the director of the Yurok Wildlife Department, tells News 10’s Christina Giardinelli.
Not only are the massive birds culturally important, but they also fill a necessary ecological niche. As obligate scavengers, condors use their powerful bills to tear into dead animals with tough skin, like sea lions, that smaller scavengers can’t. Thus, they start the decomposition process and help smaller animals feed, Williams-Claussen explains to CapRadio’s Megan Manata and Vicki Gonzalez.
The four juvenile birds released into the redwood forest are the first to call the region home in more than a century. The only female in the cohort is named Ney-gem’ ‘Ne-chweenkah, which means “she carries our prayers.”
“She represents the creative life-force energy that females bring to the world,” says Williams-Claussen in the statement. “It’s powerful. I envision her as the start of a whole new life and possibilities, both for our flock and for condors throughout their range. We also imbue this name with our prayers for her specifically, her cohort brothers and for all condors. She carries those, wherever she goes.”