“KEEP CALM AND CARRION” seems to be the motto of three California condors settling in at the Oregon Zoo this month. Keepers say the critically endangered scavengers have taken to their new zoo home with nary a ruffled feather.
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, and until then the enormous birds will continue to enjoy a high-profile settling-in period.
Kaweah and Tyrion both moved in April 9, and a third condor, known simply as No. 432, joined them in the habitat last week. Curator Michael Illig says the birds already seem to feel at home in their new space, and haven’t been fazed by either zoo visitors or nearby Elephant Lands construction.
“These three are pretty unflappable,” said curator Michael Illig. “Kaweah sort of rules the roost. He’s the oldest of the three, and the one visitors are most likely to see up close. He’s just as interested in people as they are in him.”
On April 12, the zoo reopened the visitor path between Cougar Crossing and the Family Farm, allowing some fairly good views of the condors as they flap about the aviary, perching high on 20-foot tree snags or sunning their impressive 9-foot wingspans. The huge scavengers can also be seen from above by visitors strolling up and down the boardwalk leading into the zoo.
The newest arrival, condor No. 432, is 6 years old and just coming into full adulthood. He has previously been on exhibit at the Santa Barbara Zoo. Though not considered a good candidate for release into the wild, he is expected to one day rejoin 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
The $2.3 million Condors of the Columbia habitat was named for the “buzzards of the Columbia” referenced in Meriwether Lewis’ journals during the Lewis and Clark expedition. 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..
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 more than 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 25 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.”
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.
For more information about the Oregon Zoo’s California condors, visit www.oregonzoo.org/Condors.