Meet the influencer of the California condor world

During the pandemic, a chick named Iniko became an ambassador for conservation from her redwood nest.

 

On Dec. 4, over 400 people logged on to Zoom to watch the Ventana Wildlife Society release three young California condors into the wilds of central California. The nonprofit frees captive-bred birds once a year, but this event was special: One of the condors, Iniko, had gained a flock of ardent fans during the pandemic.

The chat box buzzed. Viewers across the United States and from places as far-flung as Symi, Greece, and Auckland, New Zealand, typed greetings.

“Been looking forward to this all week! Woohoo!” wrote Mia Clapham.

“Just the thought of Iniko being released soon has already brought tears to my eyes,” added Nancy Valente.

The event’s host, wildlife biologist Joe Burnett, queued up a video that chronicled Iniko’s dramatic story. “Today is the day we’ve all been waiting for,” Burnett told viewers from his Zoom square. “It’s the culmination of an emotional roller-coaster ride.”

Iniko and Redwood Queen in nest, before the Dolan Fire in August 2020.
Explore.org

Iniko was born inside a redwood tree snag in the Big Sur Condor Sanctuary. Live-streaming cameras placed in and near her nest and hosted on explore.org allowed people to spy on her from the moment she hatched on April 25, 2020. When COVID-19 grounded its field tours, Ventana started hosting monthly “Condor Zoom-Chatsso that people could learn more about the endangered birds. Hundreds of suggestions for naming the chick poured in, and in June, Burnett revealed the winner: Iniko, Nigerian for “born in troubled times.”

Over the long, grim months of the pandemic, hundreds tuned in for updates. “We know that people are more likely to support something if they know and care about it,” said Kelly Sorenson, executive director of the Ventana Wildlife Society. “The pandemic made us realize our reach is much better in a virtual world.” 

The sight of Iniko being nuzzled and fed by her parents, Redwood Queen and Kingpin, gave people a respite from anxiety and isolation.  Then, on the night of Aug. 20, disaster struck the sanctuary when the Dolan Fire roared up a dry canyon straight toward several condor nests.

“We know that people are more likely to support something if they know and care about it.”

That evening, Spike Cutolo, a retired NYPD detective, was watching from her home in rural New Hampshire. She saw embers falling into the frame of Iniko’s webcam. “I couldn’t leave her. I cared enough about her that if she was going to leave this planet, she wasn’t going to go alone.” Cutolo could hear the fire crackling through her computer speakers as the agitated chick wildly flapped her wings. Then the camera feed blanked out.

For days, no one knew whether Iniko had survived. Messages and donations poured in, as views on Ventana’s Facebook page soared from 20,000 to over 360,000. Finally, a crew of field biologists hiked out to the redwood tree. Iniko was alive, but the fire had destroyed Ventana’s research facilities and killed 11 condors, including Iniko’s father, Kingpin — a huge blow to the central California flock, which numbered just over 100 birds.

Iniko in her redwood tree nest after surviving the Dolan Fire September 2020.
Stephanie Cruz Herrera / Ventana Wildlife Society

Iniko’s supporters watched as the young bird thrived under her mother’s care, but in October, a male condor named Ninja began harassing her. During one attack, Iniko tumbled out of her nest and sprained her foot. Ventana’s staff rescued her, and she spent the next year at the Los Angeles Zoo, learning how to be a condor from captive-bred chicks and adults. In preparation for her release, she was brought to Ventana’s San Simeon Condor Sanctuary in the fall of 2021.

Iniko’s trials seemed to echo the troughs and crests of the pandemic. “A lot of people connected with her, because, in a lot of ways, we were all struggling,” Sorenson told me.

On the day of her release, back on the Zoom call, Burnett checked in with the field staff who were monitoring the birds at the sanctuary. “How’re we looking?” he asked.

Iniko before leaving the Los Angeles Zoo, on her way to return to the Ventana Wildlife Society on California's Central Coast October 2021.
Los Angeles Zoo

“Iniko’s on the ground,” wildlife biologist Danae Mouton replied. “We all have our money on her going out first.”

With fellow condors Dian Fossey and Rachel Carson perched above her, Iniko eyed the calf carcass that staff had placed just outside the pen.

Burnett started the countdown: “Three, two, one. … This is it!”

Intern Carolyn Doyle yanked on a cable. The gate stuck momentarily, then rolled open. At first, the birds didn’t budge. Then Iniko began pacing, coming within a few inches of the open gate.

“We’re ALL on the edge of our seats!!!!!” Judy Heher wrote in the chat.

Iniko in the San Simeon release pen, just prior to her release back to the wild in December 2021.
Greyson Poutas / Ventana Wildlife Society

Another intern opened the pen’s upper gate to encourage the birds. Iniko flew up to the perch next to Dian, who, without ceremony, launched out of the enclosure. Iniko leaped after her. The field staff cheered; someone clapped; the chat lit up with good wishes.

On the ground, there was a flurry of giant wings as the condors descended on the dead calf. Iniko emerged the victor, dining on the carcass as the others watched.

“So proud of dear Iniko!” wrote one viewer named Julia. “She’s owning the free world and that carcass.”

Juliet Grable is a freelance writer based in southern Oregon. Follow her on Twitter @JulietGrable

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