Re-Introduction of the California Condor in the Pacific Northwest

Doug Williams
 

Hundreds of years ago, the California Condor staked claim to the thermal currents from the Baja Peninsula all the way to British Columbia. This magnificent raptor, the largest land bird in North America, uses its almost ten feet wingspan to soar at heights of close to three miles.

 

With a documented flight range of 150 miles in a day, the condor was described by Lewis and Clark in their 1806 expedition to the current Oregon—Washington border.

The largest North American landbird, the California Condor was once very widespread across the continent, but is now one of the world’s rarest bird species.

The largest North American landbird, the California Condor was once very widespread across the continent, but is now one of the world’s rarest bird species.

Sadly, the range of the California Condor kept decreasing, and the last sighting of this bird in Oregon was over a century ago, in 1904. As reported in Daily Mail, currently banned chemicals, such as DDT, impacted their birthing of young, and rendered the population to only a few birds left in the wild by the late 1980s.

The birds are carrion-eaters, not hunters, so game shot with lead shot was eaten by the birds, resulting in the lead poisoning of many. These two factors combined to endanger the overall population, and Bird Watching reports that in 1987, the bird officially became extinct in the wild, as the remaining population of about 20 birds was put in captivity.

These birds are not prolific breeders. The US Fish & Wildlife Service details breeding habits of these highly intelligent, social birds. In the wild, the females typically lay an egg only every year or two, using holes or caves in the face of a cliff as a nesting area. Both parents help incubate the egg, which takes 54 – 58 days.

After birth, the chicks take about six months to grow their flight feathers, and young condors will stay with their parents for one to two years, learning to feed and forage before going out on their own.

However, due to the success of the captive breeding program, the population of the California condor has climbed back to over four hundred birds. Beginning in 1991, condors were gradually reintroduced to the wild, with current release points in Southern California, Mexico, and Arizona. There are currently about 275 condors in the wild, with another 165 in captivity as a breeding base.

Now, based on the combined efforts of the Yurok Tribe, the National Park Service, and the US Fish & Wildlife Service, plans are underway to begin releasing the condor in what was part of its historical northern range, the Redwood National Forest in California.

An environmental assessment was recently completed and is under evaluation. With a successful evaluation and approval, the first of the birds, bred at Portland’s Oregon Zoo, could be released later in 2019.

Thanks to a successful breeding program, the population of California Condors has risen, but the species is still critically endangered.

Thanks to a successful breeding program, the population of California Condors has risen, but the species is still critically endangered.

According to Tiana Williams-Claussen, a Yurok biologist and tribe member, the plan would be to release six birds per year for each of the next twenty years.

She is confident that the birds will find their way into the Oregon skies, as that is part of their normal flight pattern, and she feels it is “just a matter of time.” With the banning of DDT, and a current ban on lead shot in parts of California, to be expanded to the entire state in July, environmentalists feel that the birds will thrive in both the Oregon and California locations.

Both Williams-Claussen and Yurok Chairman Joseph James gave testimony before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in February about the condor re-introduction to this area according to the Yurok Tribe newsletter.

The Yurok tribe conducted a five-year study starting in 2008. According to Joseph, they elected to join the triumvirate with the two US agencies because the condor is indelibly linked to, and a significant part of, their sacred ceremonies.

Adds Williams-Claussen, quoted on VC Star, “We haven’t had him for 100 years. We continue to dance, but it’s very important that he actually comes home to Yurok country so he can participate in our ceremonies.”

While no firm date has been set, the tribe has plans to release the birds in Yurok ancestral territory, currently part of the Redwood National Park. They hope to see these magnificent birds soaring over the Oregon and California skies shortly after that.

 
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