Before settlement of the West, California condors ranged from British Columbia to Baja California and inland to the Rocky Mountains. The last official sighting of a California condor in Oregon was in 1904.
California condors (Gymnogyps californianus) are the largest land birds in North America with a nearly 10-foot wingspan that they use to soar for very long distances. They are vultures, scavenging and feeding on carrion.
- prefer large dead animals such as whale, sea lions, elk and cattle, but also eat rodents and fish
- can eat up to 3 pounds in one feeding
- are inquisitive and intelligent
- rely on keen eyesight to locate food
- can fly up to 200 miles a day in search of carrion
- take five to eight years to reach sexual maturity and lay only one egg, every other year.
Condors play a critical role in ecosystems: they recycle nutrients (or toxins) and dispose of dead, disease-ridden animals. Ever since humans have been documenting their own existence, condors have been revered.
California condor numbers declined due to:
- poaching and egg collection for recreation and for museum collections
- electrocution by power lines
- Lead poisoning. When condors feed on gut piles of animals shot by humans, they can ingest lead bullet fragments. Lead enters the condor’s bloodstream from the carrion, affecting the central nervous system and leading to a slow death by starvation or predation in their weakened state. Hunters who use lead ammunition can help if they remove carcasses from the field and bury gut piles. A better option is to using lead-free ammunition. Then, the gut piles left behind provide a vital seasonal food source for all scavengers.
- DDT. The birds ingest this pesticide when they eat marine mammals resulting in eggshell thinning and consequent failure to hatch.. Though it has been outlawed, DDT’s effects persist in the California marine environment.
- Ingestion of microtrash. Condors eat bottle caps, broken glass and PVC pipe, likely trying to get enough bone fragments to feed their chicks. They bring it to their nests and regurgitate it to their chicks along with food. When chicks ingest this microtrash, it can fatally obstruct their digestive tracts.
- Poisoning. Early settlers used large amounts of strychnine to kill predators like wolves and grizzlies. Scavengers feeding on these carcasses were poisoned also.
The condor was the first species to be listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1973. By 1980, all that remained of the plentiful West Coast condor population was a remnant population in California’s San Joaquin Mountains. By 1987, with only 22 birds known to exist, all were taken into captivity. They became the nucleus of today’s California condor recovery program.
California condor recovery
In 1988, with these 22 birds, the San Diego Zoo became the first zoo to work to save the condor. In 1992, the first birds were reintroduced into the wild. In 2003, the Oregon Zoo joined the condor recovery program.
Oregon condor breeding facility
Condors returned to Oregon after almost 100 years when six breeding pairs were brought to the Jonsson Center for Wildlife Conservation in Clackamas County in 2003. The 52-acre site is isolated; limited human contact maximizes the young condors’ ability to thrive in the wild once they are released.
Today, 40 to 50 birds live at the Jonsson Center. There is space for 53 birds, including 11 breeding pairs.
The life of an Oregon-bred condor
At the Jonsson Center, condors get the best possible start to life:
- Eggs are laid from January through March. After an egg is laid, it is removed from the nest to an incubator. When the egg begins to hatch it is placed back with the parents.
- Chicks hatch 54 to 57 days later. By June, all chicks have usually hatched. Following an annual tradition, tribal partners have the option to name the condor chicks. Recent names include Chan-a-hop, given by the Cowlitz Tribe, and Chxi-tayi, given by the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.
- At about eight months, hatchlings are moved from breeding pens to a fledgling flight area. There they begin their flight fitness preparations and learn to socialize with adult “mentor” condors.
- Young condors receive aversion training that teaches them not to land on power poles. A mock power pole in their enclosure is rigged to provide a mild electric shock if they land on it.
- Oregon-raised condors then move to field pens at one of the five release sites.
- After several months in the field pens they are released into the wild. Release sites are in Mexico’s Baja California peninsula, central and southern California and northern Arizona.
Successes and ongoing work
From 22 birds in 1987, California condors are beginning to reach larger population numbers. Today, more than 200 condors fly free and 180 more live in condor breeding programs. Since 2004, 20 Oregon Zoo-reared birds have moved onto field pens, with most released into wild areas in California and Arizona.
The Oregon Zoo would like to see California condors back to Oregon. But it is not a matter of simply providing open space for them. It means providing:
- protection from lead poisoning and uncontaminated sources of marine mammal carcasses
- safety from other threats such as wind turbines.
Condors are both a biological and a cultural indicator species that provide valuable information about the diverse communities that sustain them, including humans’ own creative capacity to give back to and support natural ecosystems.
The California condor was one of the original animals listed in the landmark Endangered Species Act of 1973 that began protecting the nation’s most vulnerable species. Many agencies and individuals work for their recovery. Today three zoos and a wildlife center are breeding institutions for condors for release by the recovery program:
- Oregon Zoo
- San Diego Zoo
- Los Angeles Zoo
- The Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey, Boise, Id.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, working with many other agencies and partners, implements and oversees the California condor recovery program.