Once nearly extinct, California condors take flight again

Good news, the largest birds in North America are soaring in Northern California skies with the help of an Indigenous tribe and a team of scientists.

Among the world’s tallest trees, next to the world’s biggest ocean and along the state’s longest highway, the largest birds in North America are returning to Northern California after a 130-year absence.

The California condor is the largest North American land bird. It became extinct in the wild in 1987 when all remaining wild individuals were captured, but has since been reintroduced to northern Arizona and southern Utah (including the Grand Canyon area and Zion National Park), the coastal mountains of California, and northern Baja California in Mexico.

The adult California condor is a uniform black with the exception of large triangular patches or bands of white on the underside of the wings. It has gray legs and feet, an ivory-colored bill, a frill of black feathers surrounding the base of the neck, and brownish red eyes.

A California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) sounds almost mythical: A bird larger than any person. Beaks that can rip through whale flesh. Yet a gentle conservator that does not kill, but rather feeds on animals that are already dead.

The last reliable report of a condor north of San Francisco was in 1904. Researchers say the population declined due to lead poisoning, which was caused by the birds ingesting fragments of lead ammunition in carcasses killed and left by hunters, as well as habitat destruction and poaching.

By 2007, conservation groups with the California Condor Recovery Program successfully introduced 144 condors around the southern coast. That same year, the Yurok Tribe Council passed a resolution to create a reintroduction site in Northern California — but the group needed to find a suitable location.

The mission of the Yurok Tribe is to exercise the aboriginal and sovereign rights of the Yurok People to continue forever our Tribal traditions of self-governance, cultural and spiritual preservation, stewardship of Yurok lands, waters and other natural endowments, balanced social and economic development, peace and reciprocity, and respect for the dignity and individual rights of all persons living within the jurisdiction of the Yurok Tribe, while honoring our Creator, our ancestors and our descendants.

The Yurok Tribe and government partners drafted a plan to release condors into Redwood National Park. The towering old-growth coastal redwoods provided ample space for them to nest and rest, while the birds could forage in vast open prairies

The Yurok Tribe received four California condors from the Oregon Zoo and World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho. While the condor release facility was under construction in Redwood National Park, the birds spent several months at a sanctuary in San Simeon under the care of biologist Joe Burnett and his colleagues at the Ventana Wildlife Society, a nonprofit group that restores endangered species in central California.

Ventana Wildlife Society restored a population of bald eagles to central California and dedicated the last 25 years to restoring California condors to the wild while providing meaningful outdoor experiences to youth and families. ​​ In doing so, we create hope for humans and wildlife to thrive, together. Help us restore condors to the wild and educate the next generation.

Go behind the scenes with Wilderness Documentarian Ross Thomas as he learns the amazing and inspiring stories of the critically endangered California condor. Ross meets the Ventana Wildlife Society experts who have been working with the local community to restore these majestic giants to the wild Big Sur coast since 1997.

Ross’s epic journey begins with a once in a lifetime visit with Senior Wildlife Biologist Joe Burnett to a wild condor’s nest deep in the Big Sur wilderness. Ross witnesses the intimate interaction between a condor parent and its new chick in the crown of a giant redwood tree. Ross then travels with Joe to see the Condor’s Big Sur sanctuary, which was destroyed by the Dolan Fire in 2020.

Joe shares rare archival footage of the 2008 Basin Complex fire that burned most of the Big Sur wilderness. We see Ventana Wildlife Society biologists climb a burned redwood tree to save baby condor, Phoenix. Later, we meet Iniko, who captured the world’s heart during the Dolan Fire. We learn the stories of the condors and their incredible resiliency in the face of huge adversity.

Through experiencing the work of Ventana Wildlife Society, Ross comes to understand the greatest threat to condors is not wildfire but rather, lead ammunition. Ross meets Mike Stake, Non-Lead Ammunition Program Manager, who takes him to meet with a rancher in a key condor area to better understand these complex issues. The film concludes with a call to action of how we can all help these magnificent giants.

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