Keep calm and carrion: Zoo marks Vulture Day

August 31, 2018 - 8:20am

Keeper talks at zoo will highlight California condors and other 'master recyclers'

The Oregon Zoo will celebrate International Vulture Awareness Day on Saturday, Sept. 1, showcasing California condors, turkey vultures and other "master recyclers," and highlighting the critical role vultures play in ecosystems around the world.

At 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., visitors can stop by the zoo's Condors of the Columbia habitat for keeper talks and up-close views of these colorful, charismatic and critically endangered birds. 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. Volunteers will be on hand throughout the day, providing information about these enormous birds and the actions we can take to protect them. 

Considered nature's clean-up crew, vultures play a critical role in the ecosystem, feeding on carrion — dead animals — that could otherwise spread disease. Unfortunately, vulture populations worldwide have been in sharp decline.

In Africa, poachers have been targeting vultures — poisoning the carcasses they feed on in an effort to remain undiscovered by park rangers, who can be alerted to illegal activity when the birds gather above poached animals. Conservationists say six of the continent's 11 vulture species are nearing extinction. In Asia, the drug diclofenac — used by veterinarians to treat livestock — has decimated vulture populations, with some species declining by around 99 percent.

In North America, 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, which 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.