Zoo 'condor cams' offer rare look at endangered bird's nest

February 25, 2015 - 1:42pm

With breeding season in full swing, new video shows condor parents tending their egg

The California condor breeding season is in full swing at the Oregon Zoo's Jonsson Center for Wildlife Conservation, and for the first time in the zoo's 12 years of breeding these critically endangered birds, staff have captured clear video from inside one of the nest boxes.

"Now we can capture full HD video that, with luck, might provide some of the clearest footage of condor chicks ever seen."

—Michael Durham, zoo videographer

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 captive-hatched birds to survive and breed in the wild.

But this spring — using GoPros purchased with a grant from the Oregon Zoo Foundation — the zoo hopes to get an inside-the-nest-box look as a pair of condor parents hatches and raises a chick. The cameras were funded as part of the foundation's new Advancement Grant program, aimed at supporting needs identified by zoo staff.

"For years, we've just had low-resolution surveillance cameras in place to allow keeper observations of the birds," said zoo videographer Michael Durham. "Now we can capture full HD video that, with luck, might provide some of the clearest footage of condor chicks ever seen."

The "condor cam" project is off to a great start, according to Durham, who over the past weekend got footage of condor couple Willie and Timocho tending their 12-day-old egg in the nest room.

"The room with the cameras was scheduled for an egg swap," Durham said. "The keepers switch a dummy egg for the real one, so they can examine it. The cameras captured all of this. You see the dad, Willie, step off the egg and exit the nest box, then the keepers makes a quick switch, and then Timocho comes into the nest box for her egg-sitting shift."

The condor parents sit on their eggs for up to two weeks before keepers remove them to determine whether they're fertile, explained Walker. This determination is made through a process called candling — using a bright light source behind the egg to show details through the shell.

Fertile eggs are placed in an incubator to prevent any potential damage, and the condor parents will sit on dummy eggs until hatching begins, usually in 54 to 58 days. At that time, Walker switches the real eggs back, so that the chicks can hatch under their parents.

The first three eggs of the 2015 have arrived over the past month, with another two to four expected in the coming months. Walker said the first condor egg came a little earlier than usual this year — Kojjati laid the first one on Jan. 27. Two more eggs arrived Feb. 10 — one to experienced condor mom Timocho (seen in the video) and another to condor No. 492, her first egg ever.

The latter egg does not appear to be fertile, however. Keepers did not observe any breeding behavior between No. 492 and her mate, No. 540, prior to the egg's arrival. Both birds are young and in their first paired situation, Walker said, and it may be another year or two before their parental instincts kick in.

"It's going to be an interesting year," Walker said. "We have four new breeding pairs, which is hard in itself, and three of the pairs have never raised a chick before. It will be learning experience for them as well as for us."

The conservation center should see its first chick of the season in early April — and if all goes well the zoo will have some video to share not long after.

More than 50 chicks have hatched at the Jonsson Center since 2003, and 34 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.

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.

The California condor is classified as a critically endangered species. In 1982, only 22 individuals remained in the wild. With the help of breeding programs like the Oregon Zoo's, condor numbers now total more than 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.