California condors land in Portland

Giant birds will take a month to settle into new habitat

On Wednesday morning, two doors opened inside the Oregon Zoo's new Condors of the Columbia habitat following a cue from a keeper radio call: "Release the krakens."

With a few wind-making wing beats, two massive birds flapped their way up to the highest perches in the habitat, and California condors — North America's largest birds — can now officially be counted among the zoo's residents.

Condors of the Columbia — the third of eight major projects funded by the community-supported 2008 zoo bond measure — opens to the public May 24, but before that the critically endangered birds will have a high-profile settling-in period.

Flying about the enclosure, perching high on 20-foot snags or sunning their impressive 9-foot wingspans, the huge scavengers will undoubtedly draw the interest of visitors strolling up and down the zoo boardwalk or along the path between Cougar Crossing and the Family Farm.

And, according to keepers, the birds may be equally interested in people-watching too.

Kaweah, a 29-year-old male whom lead condor keeper Kelli Walker describes as "very naughty," had been part of the breeding population at 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 — but had to be removed for behaving roughly with his mate and breaking their eggs. While not considered a good candidate for release into the wild, he should make an ideal ambassador for the species, according to Walker.

"He has been in captivity his entire life, and has no fear of people," Walker said. "In fact he finds them quite interesting. When the exhibit opens, he will probably come right up to the barrier to meet visitors. I'd have him in my office if I could."

Kaweah's new exhibit-mate, 5-year-old Tyrion, is the youngest of the three birds who will go on exhibit. Tyrion faced extensive medical problems following his hatching at the Los Angeles Zoo, and became relatively imprinted on people. His medical issues, including a severely curved spine, make him a poor candidate for either the breeding program or release into the wild, but Walker says he is comfortable with people and should enjoy his new home.

One additional condor (No. 432) will be joining Kaweah and Tyrion at their new habitat soon. He is 6 years old and just coming into full adulthood. Of the three zoo condors, he is the most likely to be pulled for breeding. He has previously been on exhibit at the Santa Barbara Zoo.