Zoo wraps up successful condor season

June 14, 2017 - 11:32am

Nest-box cam shows condor pair raising new chick

It's all over but the squawking. Hatching season is finally complete at the Oregon Zoo's Jonsson Center for Wildlife Conservation, where seven new California condor chicks are growing fast — a significant step forward in the recovery of this critically endangered species.

The Jonsson Center, home base for the zoo's condor recovery efforts, is located in rural Clackamas County on Metro-owned open land. The remoteness of the facility minimizes the exposure of young condors to people, thus increasing the chances for zoo-hatched birds to survive and breed in the wild.

Caregivers have been keeping tabs on one fuzzy new arrival via GoPros strategically placed inside its nest box — and earlier this week, cameras caught that moment every month-old condor lives for: a meal of regurgitated carrion lovingly delivered by dad.

"The feeding process might seem gross to some, but it's fascinating to watch and exactly what we want to see right now," said Kelli Walker, the zoo's lead condor keeper. "The chick's dad has been very attentive, which is great news."

The condor chicks will stay with their parents for at least eight months before moving to the Jonsson Center's pre-release pens for about another year. Eventually, they will travel to a wild release site to join free-flying condors in California, Arizona or Baja Mexico.

With so few of the birds left in the world, each new condor is vitally important to the species' survival, according to Walker.

"If you think about it," she said, "the seven chicks being raised here right now make up more than 1 percent of all the California condors on the planet."

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 brought under human care in an attempt to save the species from extinction. Thanks to breeding programs like the Oregon Zoo's, condor numbers now total more than 400, with the majority of those flying free.

Since 2003, more than 60 chicks have hatched at the Jonsson Center, and nearly 50 Oregon Zoo-reared birds have gone out to field pens for release. In addition, several eggs laid by Oregon Zoo condors have been placed in wild nests to hatch. Staff hope the 2017 breeding season will provide another boost to those totals.

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.

The California condor had a long history in Oregon. Lewis and Clark saw the large birds as they traveled along the Columbia River. Local archaeologists have unearthed 9,000-year-old condor bones from Native American middens, and condors were a common motif for the designs of Oregon's Wasco people, who lived along the Columbia River between The Dalles and Cascade Locks. The "Thunderbird" was considered a spiritual guide to the native peoples and is a key character in many myths.

Accumulated lead poisoning — a problem that plagues all raptors 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 also suffer from impaired motor functions.

Through its Non-Lead Hunting Education Program, the Oregon Zoo aims to inspire hunters — traditionally some of the strongest supporters of wildlife and habitat conservation — to continue that legacy by choosing non-lead ammunition.