Zoo breaks ground on California condor habitat

New exhibit, opening in 2014, offers up-close looks at a critically endangered species

Though native to the region, and commonly seen here during the time of Lewis and Clark, California condors haven't soared through Northwest skies for more than a century. The Oregon Zoo would like to see that change.

At today's ceremonial groundbreaking for the new Condors of the Columbia habitat, officials announced plans to give zoo visitors an up-close look at these highly endangered birds next spring, while also advocating for the eventual return of free-flying condors to the region.

"We want everyone to learn more about condors and their long history in Oregon," said Kim Smith, zoo director. "Visitors will have the unique opportunity to see these colorful, intelligent and highly endangered birds, learn about the survival challenges they face — and, most importantly, find out how we can help bring them back."

Condors of the Columbia — the name is a nod to the "buzzards of the Columbia" mentioned in Capt. Meriwether Lewis' journal — will be located in the Great Northwest section of the zoo, between Cougar Crossing and the Trillium Creek Family Farm. The three-story-tall mesh aviary will expand from 4,900 square feet at ground level to 5,800 square feet at the top, giving the birds enough space to fly short distances. Designed by Place Studio, the enclosure will feature:

  • a lush, native landscape with boulders, trees and log snags for perching
  • a cascading water feature with a deep condor bathing pool
  • two covered visitor areas, one elevated, offering up-close views of the birds

Local construction outfit 2KG Contractors will begin work at the site June 3.

The $1.5 million exhibit — part of the community supported zoo bond measure — will be home to adult birds from the condor recovery program that cannot be released in the wild. The zoo's recovery efforts will continue to take place at the Jonsson Center for Wildlife Conservation, located in rural Clackamas County on Metro-owned open land. The remoteness of the facility minimizes the exposure of young condors to people, increasing the chances for captive-hatched birds to survive and breed in the wild.

More than 40 healthy chicks have hatched at the Jonsson Center since the program began in 2003, and more than 20 Oregon Zoo-reared birds have gone out to field pens, with most released to the wild. In addition, several eggs laid by Oregon Zoo condors have been placed in wild nests to hatch.

Condors are the largest land birds in North America with wingspans of up to 10 feet and an average weight of 18 to 25 pounds. They are highly intelligent and inquisitive, and they require a tremendous amount of parental investment in the wild.

Accumulated lead poisoning — a problem that plagues many predators and scavengers — is the most severe obstacle to the California condor's recovery as a species. As the birds feed on carrion and other animal carcasses, they can unintentionally ingest lead from bullet fragments. Lead consumption causes paralysis of the digestive tract and results in a slow death by starvation. Lead also causes severe neurological problems, so the birds not only starve but suffer from impaired motor functions.

The California condor was one of the original animals included on the 1973 Endangered Species Act and is classified as critically endangered. In 1982, only 22 individuals remained in the wild and by 1987, the last condors were taken into captivity in an attempt to save the species. Biologists decided to place the remaining condors in a captive-breeding program. With the help of breeding programs like the Oregon Zoo's, condor numbers now total around 400, counting those in breeding programs and in the wild.

California condor breeding programs are also operated at San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park, the Los Angeles Zoo and the Peregrine Fund's World Center for Birds of Prey in Idaho. The Oregon Zoo received The Wildlife Society's conservation award in 2005 for "creating the nation's fourth California condor breeding facility."