For more than a decade the Yurok Tribe has been pushing to reintroduce the culturally significant bird to Northern California. Now, supported by scientific research and a host of agencies and organizations, a plan is taking shape.
More than a century has passed since our continent’s largest land bird soared among the world’s tallest trees. The last California Condor of the Pacific Northwest was shot and killed sometime between 1890 and 1910 in a tiny town outside Redwood National Park. Glass-eyed and dusty, the bird is mounted at the nearby Clarke Historical Museum in Eureka.
Not far from Eureka, along the same stretch of California coastline, the Yurok tribe calls home an area around the Klamath River, which meanders from Southern Oregon into Northern California. Like their ancestors, the Yurok still build sweathouses from fallen redwoods and fish the river for salmon. But the tribe aches to be reunited with prey-go-neesh—their ancestral name for the condor. “To us, he is the king of the sky,” says tribe chairman Thomas P. O’Rourke, Sr. “His absence is a hole in our hearts.”
The Yurok believe that when the creator was designing the world, he asked each animal spirit to contribute a prayer in song; the gangly yet graceful condor crooned a song more beautiful than any before it. Today, despite the birds’ decades of absence, tribal dancers wearing condor feathers handed down through generations chant his name during their annual renewal ceremonies.
To reclaim this missing piece of their cultural landscape, Yurok elders voted in 2003 to reintroduce condors to their lands. For a group of native people with limited funds, it was a bold and rare move. But the decision, O’Rourke says, was an easy one for the 5,000-member tribe, the largest in California. “No world can function and stay in balance until it is whole,” he says.