Condors of the Columbia habitat nears completion

New habitat will meet complex needs of continent's largest bird

Four stories, a "magic food room" and a carcass-friendly swimming pool: it's all included in the condor-minium.

Construction on Condors of the Columbia — a new habitat bringing the charismatic and endangered California condor to the Oregon Zoo for the first time — takes a major turn this month when the four-story aviary is crowned with a mesh roof. In March, three condors from the zoo's offsite breeding facility will move in, and sometime in May they'll start taking visitors.

"This will be a home for pterodactyl-sized scavengers with a penchant for hyper-curiosity."

—Kelli Walker, lead condor keeper

"Condors have ten-foot wingspans, complex social structures and specialized feeding habits," said the zoo's lead condor keeper, Kelli Walker. "This won't be your standard aviary — this will be a home for pterodactyl-sized scavengers with a penchant for hyper-curiosity."

To design the exhibit, staff looked to the Jonsson Center for Wildlife Conservation, where the zoo has participated in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service California Condor Recovery Program since 2003. There, condors are fed through chutes that prevent the birds from associating humans with food, an association that could hinder their survival once they are released. At the zoo, the birds will also be fed through an airlock-style room, where food "magically appears."

Another condor amenity is the carcass-friendly swimming pool.

"Condors love bathing," Walker said. "During summer at the Johnson Center, they'll submerge themselves neck-deep and splash around nearly every day. They also love dragging their food into the water to play with it, so we built in a very robust filtration system."With a 5,800-square-foot roof, the exhibit is designed to allow flight, and features tall perches repurposed from trees brought down during Elephant Lands construction. Perches were placed for optimal sunlight, which provides both warmth and a means for zapping bacteria on a bird that spends much of its time head-deep in dead animals.

The $2.6 million Condors of the Columbia habitat — part of the community supported zoo bond measure — was named for the "buzzards of the Columbia" referenced in Meriwether Lewis' journals during the Lewis and Clark expedition. Condors have not been documented in Oregon for more than a century.

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.

More than 40 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.

California condor breeding programs are also operated at San Diego Zoo Safari 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."