SYMBIOS

WILDLIFE and CONSERVATION

 

BRINGING CALIFORNIA CONDORS BACK
TO THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST

Sanford "Sandy" Wilbur
May 2008

I. THE PAST OCCURRENCE OF CONDORS IN THE NORTHWEST
A. Summary of Regional Records

 

For this discussion of past California condor status and distribution, the "Pacific Northwest" is defined as that area of California north of a line drawn from San Francisco to Sacramento, plus Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, and British Columbia and Alberta, Canada. Condors in the Twentieth Century spent the majority of their time within 30 to 45 miles of, and seldom more than 100 miles from, known nests or roosts [References 52 (pages 9, 18, 52), 54A, 81 (p. 27), 82 (p. 234)]. Therefore, most of the condor records from north of the "Pacific Northwest" line probably represented birds that were resident somewhere in that northern area. (The reasons why it is unlikely that southern birds moved into this northern area are discussed elsewhere.)

Click here for the Annotated References that are the Basis for this Summary

Click here for Further Discussion of the Records

Click here for Some General Thoughts on Reintroductions

Return to the Introductory Comments

NORTH SAN FRANCISCO BAY
[Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, Sonoma, and Lake counties]
Surprisingly, I have found no specific records of condors from Alameda and Contra Costa counties, even though records are numerous just south and just north, and there are a number of areas that appear to be ideal as condor nest sites (e.g., Rocky Ridge near Moraga, Mt. Diablo, and the Berkeley hills). Condors were in the area regularly at one time, as evidenced by a number of ceremonial burials of condors [References 40, 69, 79], and tubes and whistles made of condor bones [69]. Condor feathers collected in a redwood grove in Contra Costa County in 1854 constitute the only modern record [2].
In the northern part of this district, condors were apparently widespread and common through the mid-1800s, with some persisting until after 1900. Among the Native Americans of the area, all Pomo divisions were well acquainted with condors and had specific words identifying the species [5]. The Southern Pomo, Eastern Pomo, Southeastern Pomo, and Coast Miwok are known to have included a condor dance in their annual dance cycle [6, 49, 69]. Whole condor skins were used in ceremonies, as were skirts and robes made of condor feathers. Condor bones were made into whistles and ear ornaments, and condor fat was used as a medicine [6]. Among the Pomo oral tradition, there is the suggestion that young condors were taken from nests and raised in captivity (although this remembrance was apparently not strong) [6].
In 1840-1841, following Russian settlement of the Sonoma County coast, a number of condor skins and condor feather capes were collected [37, 39, 63]. Condors were seen near Fort Ross, Sonoma County, ca 1845-1846 [25]. In Napa County, condors were seen "in great abundance" in August 1845, and one was killed there in September 1845 [19]. In nearby Marin County in July 1847, more than a dozen condors came to feed on a deer carcass [16]. Between 1857 and 1860, condors were frequently seen in the Napa Valley, usually two or three together [47]. Numbers seem to have declined after 1860, but one was collected in Marin County between 1900 and 1905 [11].
The few specific dates available for condor sightings in this district are in summer (July, August, September), when they could have represented either breeding or non-breeding birds. The prominent role given to condors in Native American life in this district suggests much more than a passing familiarity with birds periodically visiting the area. With the closest known condor nests and roosts 100 miles to the south, it seems that even a seasonal population described as "in great abundance" and "frequently" must have had a closer home habitat. There is excellent-appearing nesting habitat in such areas as Mt. St. Helena, and The Palisades and Table Rock north of Calistoga.

NORTHWEST CALIFORNIA COAST
[Mendocino, Humboldt, Del Norte, and western Siskiyou counties]
The Native Americans in this district had a strong relationship with the condor. In Mendocino County, all Pomo and Yuki groups had specific words to describe condors [5], as did the Bear River group in coastal Humboldt County [32] and the Karuk of western Siskiyou County [13]. Karuk, and Humboldt County Wiyot had myths in which the condor figured prominently [31, 38]. A condor dance was part of the annual dance cycle of the Pomo in Mendocino County, and also the Coast Yuki [6, 69]. Mendocino County Yuki, and Humboldt County Hupa and Sinkyone viewed the condor as a principal source of shamanistic power [69], and condor feathers were used by shamans, in religious ceremonies, and in dance ceremonies by Northern Pomo, Central Pomo, Sinkyone, Kato, Yuki, Coast Yuki, and Wiyot [6, 45, 69]. The Pomo oral tradition that condors may have been taken from nests and raised in captivity [6] gains interest when considering that a Pomo campsite in the Hopland area of Mendocino County had a name translated as "condor hole" [5].
Most of the early exploring parties avoided the North Coast, and there was little European settlement of the area until after 1900s. Consequently, there are few published records of condors in the area. In May 1828, Jedediah Smith saw "large and small buzzards" (which he differentiated from the eagles, ravens and hawks he also saw) in the Klamath River area near the present-day Humboldt-Del Norte counties line [71]. A few were seen in Mendocino County (location and season unspecified) in the 1870s [8], and two were shot in the central Humboldt County mountains (between 1888 and 1892, both in the fall) [70]. Condors were allegedly plentiful in Humboldt County in "early days" [70]. A sight record of one condor in a remote area of Humboldt County in the fall of 1912 was made by an observer who knew condors [18].
The abundance of Native American records of condors, coupled with specific reports from both spring and fall in the 1800s, suggests much more than occasional vagrant birds in the area. This district is from 150 to 300 miles from the nearest condor nesting areas (and 200 to 400 miles from the majority of condors during the 1800s), much too distant to expect more than the rarest of vagrants.

SACRAMENTO VALLEY AND NORTHERN CALIFORNIA MOUNTAINS
[Solano, Yolo, Sacramento, Placer, Yuba, Butte, Plumas, Tehama, Siskiyou and Shasta counties]
Most Native American groups in at least the lower half of the Sacramento Valley knew condors well, and the species played a strong role in their religion, culture, and ceremony. Patwin, River Patwin, Valley Nisenan, Vallley Maidu, and Konkow included a condor dance (called "moloko," or similar name) in their annual dance cycles. They wore the full skins of condors when they danced [7, 45, 69]. Condors figured prominently in the myths of the Valley Nisenan [46], and was perceived as a great source of shamanistic power by Hill Patwin and Konkow [69]. As was the case along the northern California coast, knowledge of and interest in condors appears to have been much greater than one would have expected from a species that only showed up in the area occasionally.
Actually, there are a significant number of written records of condors in the Sacramento Valley and the surrounding mountains. Members of the Wilkes Expedition saw several in the mountains north of Redding in early October 1841, and more in mid October 1841 as they proceeded down the Sacramento Valley toward Sacramento [62]. Condors were seen near Sacramento in 1846 (month not given) [79], and one was shot near the mouth of the Feather River in September 1849 [42]. The Bruff party killed one condor in the mountains south of Mt. Lassen in late October 1849, and had a number of sightings of them there through the winter of 1849-1850 [65]. In July and August 1854, members of the Pacific Railroad Survey saw condors daily on their march up the Sacramento Valley and through the Siskiyou Mountains to the Klamath Basin, and had "many opportunities of shooting them" [59]. Condors were occasionally seen in the Valley (in winter, and perhaps other seasons) in Yuba and Butte counties in the 1870s [8, 9, 10], and in the mountains south of Mt. Lassen in 1884 (no month given) [73]. There are no certain records after the 1880s, but there is a Spring 1925 sighting of six birds identified as condors in a remote area of Siskiyou County [29]. This observation, plus post-1900 sightings in southwestern Oregon [26, 30, 61], might indicate that a small population of condors remained in this isolated region for many years after they had disappeared from more populated areas.
As was the case in the Northwest California Coast district, many of these condor observations were made 200 to 300 air miles north of the nearest known condor nesting areas, a much greater distance than one would expect condors to travel. There are records for most months of the year, including in winter when one would expect most birds to be congregated near nesting areas. This further suggests that the condors seen in this area were resident there, nesting in either the Coast Ranges, the Sierra foothills, or both.

SOUTHWEST OREGON
[Curry, Coos, Josephine, Jackson, and Douglas counties]
There is not as strong a record of interrelationships between California condors and southwest Oregon Native Americans as there is in adjacent parts of California. Many of the local groups had been reduced almost to extinction by the early 1800s; this, and the gathering up of various remnants and forcing them on to reservations distant from their home territories, undoubtedly broke traditions and resulted in the loss of some oral history. Nevertheless, Moen [58] found photographs and preserved specimens of condor feathers used in Karuk and Yurok dances within a few miles of the Oregon-California border, and learned of at least one Kalapuya myth involving "Grandfather Buzzard." He also learned from Siletz historian Robert Kentta of an oral tradition that condors once nested in the broken tops of coast redwoods near the Oregon-California border. One condor bone was found in a shellmound/kitchen midden near Brookings, Curry County, Oregon, that was associated with "cultural material which is not very old, though entirely pre-Caucasian, and with remains of the modern fauna of the area" [55].
In October 1826, David Douglas saw "many" condors in the mountains between the Willamette and Umpqua rivers, and reported that Alexander McLeod had seen condors farther south in Oregon about the same time period [23]. In late September 1841 Titian Peale saw condors (no numbers given) in the Umpqua watershed, probably near present-day Canyonville, Oregon [62]. Roselle Putnam, a settler at Yoncalla, Douglas County, saw condors around 1851-1852 (no date or numbers given), and saw one dead condor in that area [64]. A condor was rumored to have been killed on the southern Oregon coast ca 1890 [26]. There are several records of 2-4 condors near Drain, Douglas County, in July 1903 and March 1904 [26, 61]. "Several well-informed woodsmendescribed accurately" condors in southwest Oregon in the early 1900s [30].
Although the total number of records is not great for this area, I think it is significant that nearly everyone who left a written record of this region before 1855 recorded condors. The region was so lightly settled and so seldom traveled in the late 1800s that even a substantial population of condors might have gone unseen until "discovered" again around 1900. The specific records include ones in March, July, September and October, at least suggesting a resident population in the area.

WILLAMETTE VALLEY
[Lane, Linn, Marion and Clackamas counties]
Other than the Kalapuya myth involving "Grandfather Buzzard" [58] I haven't found any references to Native Americans and condors in the Willamette Valley. The tribes in the Valley were decimated by disease beginning in the 1770s, and the survivors were moved to reservations, so oral history was likely lost.
Before 1850, most records left by Caucasians in this area included reports of condors. Some were seen above Willamette Falls (probably Clackamas County) in January 1814 [21], and David Douglas found them "common" in the mid-Valley in October 1826, with nine condors in one flock [23]. Townsend killed one condor near Willamette Falls in April 1834, and later "constantly saw them" (but perhaps the latter statement referred to the Columbia River, not the Willamette) [74]. Titian Peale recorded condors "on the plains of the Willamette" in early September 1841 [60].
Condors in this area, if not resident nearby, were certainly not coming all the way from central California. Because some of the records are from winter and early spring, when one would expect most condors to be congregated near nesting areas, it seems likely that these were part of a resident population.

LOWER COLUMBIA RIVER
[Washington and Oregon, from The Dalles, Wasco County, Oregon, west to the Pacific Ocean]
The Native Americans of the Columbia Gorge clearly knew California condors, although the differentiation between the real condor and mythical big birds is not as clear-cut as it was in California [58]. An archeological site near The Dalles, Wasco County, Oregon, yielded skeletal parts of at least 22 different condors, condors that died 7000 to 10,000 years ago [36, 57, 69]. About one-quarter of the bones examined closely showed evidence of feather removal by humans, suggesting that the birds were killed to obtain religious or ritual materials [36].
The Lewis and Clark expedition members saw condors regularly from October 1805 to April 1806, from the vicinity of present-day Cascade Locks, Oregon, downstream to the Pacific Ocean. Specific dates recorded: 28 October 1805, "a few" seen near Cascade Locks; 18 November 1805, one shot near Cape Disappointment, Washington; 29 November 1805, seen (no numbers given) near present-day Astoria, Oregon; early January 1806, apparently regularly seen on the Pacific coast, Clatsop County, Oregon; 16 February 1806, one condor killed in Clatsop County; 4 March 1806, some seen (no numbers given) in present-day Columbia County, Oregon; 15 March 1806, two condors shot, Columbia County, Oregon; 28 March 1806, seen (no numbers given) at Deer Island, Columbia County; and 6 April 1806, one condor shot near Multnomah Falls, Oregon [48].
Condors (apparently several) were seen in January 1814 near Cascade Locks [21]. John Scouler collected one (probably near Fort Vancouver, Washington) in the fall 1825 [68]. David Douglas apparently saw them regularly near the west end of the Columbia Gorge, with specific observations made in January or February 1826 (including one shot), and in spring 1827, when condors were "ever hovering around" and one was collected [23, 27]. William Tolmie saw "some" condors feeding on an animal carcass 21 May 1833, on the Cowlitz River not far from its junction with the Columbia [72]. Townsend apparently saw them along the lower Columbia River in the spring (and summer?) of 1835 (although his statement may apply only to the Willamette River) [74]. The most recent published record was of one near Fort Vancouver in January 1854 [20].
Condors appear to have been along the lower Columbia River throughout the year. Many of the records are in winter and early spring, the time of year when one would expect condors to be congregated near their nesting territories. There are many rocky areas that appear suitable for condor nesting.

EAST OF THE CASCADES
[Eastern Oregon, eastern Washington, Idaho, Montana, Alberta]
There are only a few records of what appear to have been condors in the Intermountain Northwest. "Vultures of uncommon size" near Walla Walla, Washington, in fall 1818 were likely condors [66]. Two condors were reported near Boise, Idaho, in fall 1879, feeding on a sheep carcass [52]. A report of a condor near Coulee City, Washington, in September 1897, was made by someone who was familiar with condors in California [41]. Blackfoot members in Montana and Alberta remember individual large birds appearing occasionally in their area before 1900; some of the descriptions could have been of condors [67]. However, a published report of two condors near Calgary, Alberta, in September 1896, was almost certainly a mis-identification of immature golden eagles [24].
Probably, condors seen east of the Cascades were merely occasional transient birds, wandering from populations to the west. In fact, the number of people who failed to see condors is instructive. The Lewis and Clark expedition didn't see any condors in eastern Washington and Oregon in summer and early fall 1805, nor in late spring and summer 1806 [48]. David Douglas traveled extensively in the Columbia Basin March to August 1826, and passed through the area again in late spring 1827. In an 1829 paper, he reported that he had seen condors north to the 49th parallel (the Canadian border) [22]. He did not reach that latitude west of the Cascades, so any sighting he made would have been in the intermountain area. His journals do not record any specific observation. Although John Townsend has been quoted extensively about condors 500 miles from the mouth of the Columbia River, he failed to see any while traveling through the Columbia Basin August-September 1834, or during June-September 1836 [75]. Railroad Survey biologists in the southern Washington Cascades and Columbia Basin didn't see condors August-November 1853 [20], nor did Railroad Survey personnel traveling up the east side of the Cascades from Klamath Lake to The Dalles August-September 1854 [59]. J. K. Lord traveled from Klamath Lake to The Dalles May-July 1860; again, no condors were seen [50]. Later ornithologists who failed to see condors included:
--November 1874 to May 1875, Malheur and Harney lakes area, southeast Oregon -- T. M. Brewer (1875), Notes on seventy-nine species of birds observed in the neighborhood of Camp Harney, Oregon, compiled from the correspondence of Capt. Charles Bendire, 1st Cavalry U.S.A. Proceedings of the Boston Society of Natural History 18:153-168.
--July to October 1878, eastern Oregon including Warner Lakes, Klamath Basin, Deschutes River and The Dalles - H. W. Henshaw (1880), Ornithological report from observations and collections made in portions of California, Nevada and Oregon, by assistant H. W. Henshaw. Appendix L of the Report of the Chief Engineers; pages 282-335 in Annual report of the U. S. geographical survey west of the 100th meridian for 1879. Washington D. C., Government Printing Office.
--Summer 1879, Fort Klamath and Crater Lake, Oregon - E. D. Cope (1888), Sketches of the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. American Naturalist 22:996-1003.
--Late 1870s, Fort Klamath, Oregon -E. A. Mearns (1879), A partial list of the birds of Fort Klamath, Oregon, collected by Lieutenant Willis Wittich, U. S. A., with annotations and additions by the collector. Bulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological Club 4:161-166, 194-199.
--September 1886 to August 1887, Fort Klamath, Oregon - J. C. Merrill (1888), Notes on the birds of Fort Klamath, Oregon, with remarks on certain species by William Brewster. Auk 5:139-146, 251-262, 357-366.
--1889 Blue Mountains, northeastern Oregon - B. Gonzales (1889), Overland journey-Texas to the Pacific. Ornithologist and Oologist 14:161-162.

WESTERN WASHINGTON AND BRITISH COLUMBIA, CANADA
There are no specific records of California condors away from the Columbia River in Washington State.There are scattered records for southwestern British Columbia, where they reportedly "used to be common" [65A]: 1860s, mouth of Fraser River [50]; September 1880, two seen at Burrard Inlet [24A, 43]; ca 1890, Lulu Island [65A]. Farther north in British Columbia, William Tolmie saw what could have been a condor 24 November 1834 at Ft. McLoughlin [72]. None of these sightings were well documented, and all have been questioned on various grounds. It seems unlikely that all were misidentifications. Probably condors did periodically wander north, as they apparently did east of the Cascade Mountains on occasion.

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