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The Yurok Tribe leads conservation efforts to reintroduce the California condor

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The California condor used to soar across the American West. Today, there are only a handful of these birds left in Arizona and Central California. And now we can add Northern California to that list, thanks to a collaboration led by the Yurok Tribe. NPR's daily science podcast, Short Wave, reported on the effort. Here's host Aaron Scott.

AARON SCOTT, BYLINE: On the morning of May 3, Tiana Williams-Claussen got up before dawn, drove to a hilltop in Redwood National Park and tiptoed into a small box of a building connected to a giant metal cage. She put on a headset and started livestreaming.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TIANA WILLIAMS-CLAUSSEN: Morning, everyone. I am currently setting up at the Northern California Condor Restoration Program's release management facility, overlooking both our four juvenile birds...

SCOTT: Tiana is a wildlife biologist and the director of the Yurok Tribe Wildlife Department. And the California condor is central to her people. They call the birds Prey-go-neesh, and the tribe has spent years working to bring them back to Northern California.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAMS-CLAUSSEN: The birds are waking up this morning. They've already had a little bit of a snack.

SCOTT: They look like big vultures, except their bare heads are black, at least when they're young. And they have these collars of fluffy black feathers. When we talked with Tiana recently, she said these birds used to soar from Baja to British Columbia, feeding on the carcasses of big dead animals.

WILLIAMS-CLAUSSEN: They're kind of like the boss bird of decomposition. They will open up these carcasses that otherwise will just sit there and bloat, not only feeding themselves, but also making the food bioavailable to the other vultures and scavenging community within the region.

SCOTT: Then European settlers arrived.

WILLIAMS-CLAUSSEN: Unfortunately, condors near extinction seems to be mostly human-caused, particularly with the huge influx of people who came in with the California Gold Rush in the 1850s.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILLIAMS-CLAUSSEN: There's major overharvest of the game species. They relied on those large elk and deer and whales and sea lions.

SCOTT: Some people hunted the birds or took their eggs. But Tiana says the biggest threat was and still is human-created toxins, things like poisons used to kill animals and insects, especially DDT, as well as lead ammunition.

WILLIAMS-CLAUSSEN: About 50% of known condor mortality in the wild comes from lead toxicosis. Lead is a very soft metal, fragments heavily on impact, which means that you've got a carcass that's studded with little bits of lead, literally hundreds of pieces. And a piece as small as the head of a pin is enough to kill a condor.

SCOTT: By the 1980s, California condors were on the verge of extinction.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SCOTT: At one point, there were just 22 wild California condors left in the entire world. Saving this species seemed like a longshot at best. The plan the U.S. government settled on was to capture the remaining condors and rear them in captivity.

WILLIAMS-CLAUSSEN: The birds actually started breeding in captivity within just a few years, and they started rereleasing them just about a decade later.

SCOTT: Would you tell us a little bit about where the condor fits into Yurok culture and worldview and what it really meant to see their numbers diminish over the last century and a half?

WILLIAMS-CLAUSSEN: Our relationship with condors, you know, goes all the way back to the beginning of time, before humans were even really the, quote-unquote, "people of the world." The spirits of the world, the animals of the world were those who were teaching us how to be. And so at that time, the Creator went to all the people of the world, the spirits of the world, and said, one of the ways that we are going to keep the world healthy and in balance - which remains basically the primary reason for Yurok to exist today - he said, one of the things that we're going to do is hold these world renewal ceremonies. And so he's referencing the jump dance and the white deerskin dance, which are two ceremonies that we still hold today. And he says, but I need a song, by which he means a prayer, to help guide these dances.

Condor is not interested because he actually doesn't have a voice box. But Creator looked into his heart, into his spirit, and saw how kindhearted he was, how generous he was and how that was the sort of spirit that we wanted to bring to these dances. So when Condor said, I don't have a song, Creator's like, you're telling me that you are the biggest guy out there, you fly higher than anybody else and you've seen the whole world, and you don't have a song to share from your experiences? No, give me your song. And so Condor was like, all right, I'll do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF CALIFORNIA CONDORS CALLING)

WILLIAMS-CLAUSSEN: It's about what you expect. He hisses. And he grunts. And it's a song that only a mother could love. But Creator hears that song, and he hears the truth of it, and he says, oh, that was the most beautiful song I've ever heard. And so it's that song that we continue to sing today in our high ceremonies. Beyond that, he actually contributes feathers to our regalia, which we use in our ceremonies. Finally, we believe that because he actually is the bird who flies higher than any other in our eco-region, that he's the one to carry our prayers to the heavens and across the world when we're asking for the world to be in balance. So while we continue to sing and pray and dance, we have not had condors around to gift us his feathers, and we have not had him in our skies to carry our prayers. And so that was largely driving our decision to bring condors home.

SCOTT: Thanks to many years of conservation work, there are now a couple hundred birds in Central California and Arizona. But they haven't been seen in the Pacific Northwest for more than a century. That was all about to change, though, on this day in May, with the release of two condors called A2 and A3.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAMS-CLAUSSEN: They're starting to move around.

So we waited, and we waited. And then you could just see A3 kind of prep himself to go. And he just launched and flew off into the distance. And just seconds later, A2 followed after him. They're good buds, and as soon as he saw his friend go, he was off.

SCOTT: What is the ultimate goal? What is your dream with this?

WILLIAMS-CLAUSSEN: Well, the ultimate goal is to release our fourth bird, A1, at least for the moment. And then we will receive another cohort of birds. Four birds are expected probably in mid-August, and we will continue to release birds into the wild for the next 20 years, four to six birds annually. We will continue to have to monitor them. So it's going to be intensive management. We have got crews out there seven days per week. Ultimately, of course, the goal is that we bring the world back into balance, and we no longer have to maintain this intensive management, and they are just free-flying, tagless birds reintegrated into their traditional role in our ecosystem and in our ceremonies.

SCOTT: I'm curious - what has it been like, especially for the younger generation, to get to be the first who get to grow up with condors in the sky?

WILLIAMS-CLAUSSEN: Yeah, and that's one thing I've loved. My daughter actually turns 4 years old today. She loves condors, and she's always asking for pictures or videos of Prey-go-neesh and the opportunity that she had to meet them. She was super excited. And now I - you know, I've always known that there are these pieces, these cultural parts that are missing from me. But this is one part that is - she's never going to be missing. She's always going to be whole with. She's always going to exist in a relationship with these birds in a way that I didn't have the opportunity. And I'm just incredibly grateful for that.

SCOTT: That was Tiana Williams-Claussen and talking with Aaron Scott of NPR's daily science podcast Short Wave. The team released four more condors this month. Williams-Claussen says all eight birds are healthy and adapting well. To hear more stories like this, subscribe to Short Wave on your favorite podcast platform. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aaron Scott
Aaron Scott (he/him) is co-host of NPR's daily science podcast, Short Wave. The show is a curiosity-fueled voyage through new discoveries, everyday mysteries and the personal stories behind the science.