The Science of Condor Breeding Meets Up With a Nez Perce Ceremony

Boise, Idaho- The Peregrine Fund boasts the largest California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) breeding facility, which is only 1 of 4 in the nation. The Fund anticipates their first condor chick of the year to hatch from its 57 day incubation cycle this Monday, April 9th, 2018.  In honor of the occasion the World Center for Birds of Prey will be hosting elders from the Nez Perce Tribe, of north-central Idaho, who intend to conduct a ceremony, welcoming this newest member of their community. 


Nez Perce elder Silas Whittman says, “All the birds started the original drum, they all had to be there for it to start, and they took those words up high and made them into song and so began the first ceremony.  No bird ever sings off key.  They all harmonize.  And Condor has his place in taking things from down below, up high; he flies the highest.  His voice is not high like Eagle’s, but everybody has their role to play.  Nature is one community with many members.  If we treat the other members we share this land with the way we want to be treated, we thrive together.  If not, then we need to make up the difference before we no longer have the opportunity.  This is the way it has always worked.  It is why we welcome salmon home; it is why we thank water as life; and it is the reason we are here to honor Condor and welcome this next generation.”   


In late 2016 the Nez Perce Tribe began working on a habitat suitability study to assess the possibility of returning these iconic birds to their homeland, where they once flew along the Snake River in Hells Canyon.  The last condors reported in Idaho were seen cleaning up dead sheep in the foothills, above Boise during the mid-1890’s. Although condors have not been seen in Idaho for two generations, tribes across this region still have cultural ties to this bird, with the largest wingspan of any in North America. 


Condors once lived as far north as the Frazier River in British Columbia, Canada. Currently no condors fly free in the Pacific Northwest, despite two breeding facilities located in the Oregon and Idaho regions.  The Tribe’s Wildlife Division was awarded a two-year grant by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to study the habitat of Hells Canyon. The study considers if there are any viable areas within the northern portion of the vulture’s historic range, where recovery efforts could expand.  


The Nez Perce (Nimiipuu) are no strangers to wildlife recovery.  The Tribe has been a regional leader in restoring iconic Pacific Northwest species such as wolves, salmon, and big horn sheep for decades. Assisting to help delist the endangered California Condor, is viewed as a step toward healing the Tribal community.  “We embody the land; nature is an extension of us,” says the Cultural Resources Director, Nakia Willamson, who will be among those in attendance Monday.  


Willamson shares, “We are conducting a ceremony that connects us to this Land; everything has a place and role upon this land, including Nimiipuu people.  Wala’sat songs acknowledge our life and our interdependence upon all living things of this land, in this place.  They also acknowledge our accountability to all living beings here, including those not being heard. It is our responsibility to be their voice.”


Nez Perce Tribe Conservation Biologist, David Moen agrees with Williamson.  He says sociologists often refer to these principles as Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). Moen, who will accompany the attending elders, points out that TEK rests at the heart of Ecological Science. It also enhances it through important cultural practices, such as ceremony, which helps remind people to safeguard the critical ecological connections necessary to sustain life.  


“TEK and indigenous ways of knowing about how to live well in a particular place, help temper the destructive tendencies of modernization that are at the root of habitat loss and species extinction; all the things condors are helping us to see more clearly.” Moen says, “Many of the connections we are making in science today have been well understood by the Nimiipuu, who have lived here for millennia; through observation, deep intuition, and communion with the land.  There really is no separation between nature and culture.  Traditional ways of knowing offers guidelines to help us keep our technology accountable to the ecological services we all depend on, including condors.  ‘What we do to the land we do to ourselves’ is not a simple cliché, it’s the cultural bedrock of survival.  Like Aldo Leopold once said, ‘A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.’  I am honored to witness this unique and special occasion and hope it represents the first of many more to come.”  

The ceremony will be offered Monday at 2:30 in the afternoon and will not be open to the public.