California Condors Return to Oregon
Oregon Zoo, Portland OR
The California Condor is the largest bird in North America. Adults weigh up to 25 pounds and their wingspan measures 9-1/2 feet. Their striking orange/red baldheads are a sharp contrast to their black/gray and white body and wing colors. In flight, the coloring on the underside of their wings is the reverse of the color pattern of a turkey vulture in flight.
The condor’s home in the wild is likely to be a rocky cliff or tall tree in southern California, Arizona, and northern Baja, Mexico. In these warm climates, the heat thermals (rising columns of hot air), allow the condors to soar for hours, reaching speeds of 55 miles per hour or more, and heights of 15,000 feet.
Condors are members of the vulture family and eat carrion. After a meal, they clean their heads on grass, branches, and rocks. Sunshine also helps to kill bacteria. Cleanliness is the reason vultures have baldheads; it is much easier to clean a baldhead than a head full of feathers when you bury your head inside a dead deer or cow to find food.
Condors don’t build a true nest. The cliffs and trees chosen for their roosts (including large holes in the trunks of trees) are dammed with small gravel and other debris to keep the egg from rolling off the edge. Condors reach sexual maturity about the age of 6 or 8, and mating pairs produce one egg in late winter or spring. However, if an egg is lost, they may lay another. The four-inch egg is placed on the feet of the parent and the parent covers the egg with its chest, the warmest part of the condor’s body. Both mother and father take turns in caring for the egg. After about 56 days, a white downy chick hatches. The young condor will live with its parents about a year until it is ready to live on its own. The condor’s lifespan in the wild is about 20 years. In captivity, they have been known to live 40 years or more.
Historically, the California Condor ranged from the Pacific Coast, across the southern United States border, and up the Atlantic Coast. Lewis and Clark’s expedition across the country found condors in the Columbia River Gorge and on the Pacific Coast in 1806. By 1983, only 20 condors were known to be in the wild in Southern California.
The reasons for the decline of California Condors are many: People shot the birds and disturbed breeding condors, collected their eggs, and reduced their food supply by hunting the antelope, elk, and other wild animals the condors relied upon for food. Condors were poisoned by eating the lead in the animals hunters left dead and abandoned in the wild. They were poisoned by chemicals that ranchers used to kill livestock predators. The use of DDT caused their eggshells to be thin so that natural reproduction declined. And finally, humans moved into their habitats, further threatening the dwindling numbers. The fact that condors, on average, only raise one chick every three years also meant natural recovery was just not enough to balance population loss.
Congress set aside land in the 1930s and 1940s to provide sanctuaries in Southern California for condors. Additional land was purchased by the Audubon Society, the Nature Conservancy, and federal and state agencies. In 1981 a special breeding facility was built at the San Diego Wild Animal Park. With the wild population down to just 9 birds in 1985, the decision was made to capture all remaining wild birds and the California Condor Recovery Program was born. Today there are four captive breeding facilities: the San Diego Wild Animal Park, the Los Angeles Zoo, the Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho, and most recently the Oregon Zoo in Portland, Oregon.
Captive breeding has been successful and release of captive-born birds into the wild has brought the wild population back up to 47 in Southern California, 5 in Baja, California, and 45 in Arizona as of May 1, 2004. Release programs in California are managed by the Ventana Wilderness Society and the US Fish & Wildlife’s Hooper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge while The Peregrine Fund manages the release program in Arizona.
Captive-bred condors are now beginning to reproduce in the wild.
Why Spend so Much Money to Save One Species?
The majority of the funding for the Condor Recovery Project comes from private sources with support from the federal government. Coordination and oversight of the program is the responsibility of the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the California Condor Recovery Team, an advisory group that includes scientists with a broad range of avian expertise.
So why save endangered species? What makes these birds so special? Isn’t extinction a natural process, part of the natural order of things? That used to be true. Today, however, that process has been greatly accelerated in both wild animals and plants as a direct result of human activities. All creatures on earth are a part of a complex, delicately balanced network of life. No creature exists in isolation. Therefore, the removal of a single species can conceivably set off a chain reaction affecting many others. The full significance of the extinction of a species is seldom immediately apparent and the long-term impacts are difficult to predict.1
Take the reintroduction of gray wolves into Yellowstone National Park, for instance. When my husband and I visited there in 2003, rangers told us that the presence of the wolves has dramatically affected the whole animal system within the park. Wolves are natural predators of elk, bison, and deer, and since the wolves’ return, the herds have been naturally culled of the old and sick, and also some of the young. The hoof stock populations are returning to natural numbers that can exist on the range available to them. Since the grasslands are no longer being over grazed, smaller animals that have not existed in Yellowstone for some time are returning now that they can find enough food to sustain life.
The Oregon Zoo Enters the Recovery Program
California Condors are part of the natural history of Oregon. Archeologists have found condor artifacts as much as 9,000 years old in the Pacific Northwest and northwest Native American tribes call the condor the “Thunderbird” and the bird was a part of their religion and culture.
The idea of bringing condors back to Oregon began with a meeting of zoo officials whose task was to develop the zoo’s participation in the Lewis and Clack Bicentennial in 2006. Condors hadn’t been seen in Oregon since 1904. It seemed only fitting that the zoo should take a part in bringing back from the edge of extinction the birds that Lewis and Clark so admired in their journey through the Pacific Northwest. In 2000 the zoo met with the Condor Recovery Team, visited other breeding facilities, and presented a proposal to join the program in February 2001. The zoo’s proposal was accepted and then the real work began.
The Oregon Zoo entered into a 2-year process of planning, fund raising, and building. The zoo has a large support basis in the community and raising the $3,000,000 to build the breeding site seemed a reasonable project. However, in 2001 the economy in Oregon fell through the basement. Unemployment rose to the 2nd highest in the nation and traditional sources of funding dried up. Money came in slowly and new methods of raising funds were explored. A national fast-food chain entered the fund raising effort by dedicating a portion of the revenue from the sale of a popular food item to the condor project. They even produced special souvenir beverage cups that the public could keep.
Meanwhile the planning and preparation went on. The hunt for a proper site started. The zoo found what they thought was an appropriate site overlooking the Columbia River Gorge. Inspection by the Recovery Program Team, however, ruled out this piece of rural Oregon, as the birds would become too used to seeing humans.
(Birds too human-friendly have a high rate of failure in the wild.) The hunt for land continued and a 520-acre natural area in rural Clackamas County was chosen.
Our first birds were slated to arrive in early 2004, so even though the fund raising was still struggling, the design and construction of “Condor Creek” had to begin. Breeding condors need a minimum flight cage of 800 square feet and our facility needed to house 12 to 16 pair. With only 2/3 of the needed money raised, the construction of the first phase of the project began in the fall of 2003.
1 US Fish and Wildlife brochure, “Why Saving Endangered Species Matters.”
Staffing of the breeding facility meant hiring someone who could devote all his/her time to the program with assistance from existing curator and bird staff. The search took the zoo to a man named Joe Burnett who gained his condor experience and expertise working in the field as part of the release program. Joe, after 10 years in the program, had his own opinions on how and why some captive-bred birds did well in the wild while others did not. But working in the field meant that by the time the birds reached Joe’s release area, their behavior was already set. He wanted the chance to play a big part in raising them from the time they hatched, trying his theories on how to produce the best captive-bred birds, ones with a higher rate of survival and reproduction.
The job as “condor man” at the Oregon Zoo gave Joe this opportunity. Some of Joe’s ideas went into planning the facility. In addition to breeding areas and flight pens for the adult birds, there are also flight corridors where fledgling birds can perfect their flying skills while still close to their parents, similar to circumstances in the wild. Our birds will only leave Condor Creek when they are fully ready for release. Eventually, our dream is to re-establish a condor population in the wilds of Oregon.
The entire site is enclosed within a chain link fence, allowing limited access by zoo staff and off limits to the public. Deer and other wildlife are commonly seen in the area. An existing house on the property was turned into condor central with living quarters for the “condor man,” a remote monitoring system command center, and an area for care and incubation of eggs and newly hatched chicks. A grassy field uphill and several minutes walk from the breeding building was designated as the parking area for people working at the facility. Cement, lumber, more fencing were purchased and the construction of the 2-story breeding facility began. The bottom floor consists of holding chambers while upstairs are the breeding “caves.”
ZooGuides (Docents/Volunteers) Play a Part
The birds were to begin arriving on November 19, 2003 and a dedication ceremony was planned for November 20. Time was running out, so a call went out to ZooGuides. Hundreds of pounds of sand needed to be carried to the upstairs breeding “caves,” the outside walls needed to be painted to “blend in” with the natural surroundings, the outside enc losures needed to be gone over to remove any metal fragments left from construction, and grass needed to be planted in the parent’s outdoor fight areas as well as the flight corridors for the fledgling birds. The volunteer animal watch team needed to be trained for observing the birds during the first few weeks. Metal detectors, paint and brushes, gardening tools…ZooGuides spent two days on the site to prepare for the arrival of the birds. When there were more ZooGuides than tools, sticks were used to rake through the grass and some worked on hand and knees to go over the ground square inch by square inch. As a final test, our Andean condor was brought to the facility to inspect it. If any part of the building was not condor proof, Andy would let us know.
Our facility was ready to hold 6 pairs, which came from the three other breeding facilities in the program. The Los Angeles Zoo sent us 3 pairs of birds, most of which were experienced breeders and parents. The San Diego Wild Animal Park sent 5 birds, one of which was to be paired with a bird from the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise (The Peregrine Fund).
The first pair of birds arrived on November 19 and their release into the enclosure was part of the dedication ceremony. My first “condor watch” was scheduled to be the same day. After the dignitaries went home, only keepers, vet staff, and ZooGuides were present when the second shipment of birds arrived the afternoon of November 20. What a thrill it was to be there as the birds were give n their arrival physicals and placed into their areas.
From November 20, 2003 to after the holidays, the ZooGuide watch team spent hours each day observing the birds through special one-way glass windows, recording their behavior, assisting the condor keepers in ensuring the birds successfully settled into their new home. My first look at these birds made me ask myself, “These have to be birds that only a mother could love.” They were so ugly in the cold rain, all wet black feathers, shivering, with their necks pulled deeply into the feather ruff around the bottom of their necks. The birds weren’t the only cold ones. The watch team was also cold. There had not been enough money to provide heat for humans, only the birds’ areas. We brought in rug pieces to try to insulate our feet from the cold cement floor. Disposable hand and foot warmers were purchased and shared among team members. The term “layering” took on new meaning as we tried to keep warm during our bird watching shifts. We spoke only in whispers as we communicated with each other. We hunted through our closets for warm clothing that would not rustle too much, thereby alerting the birds to our presence. Despite all our efforts, I swear that some of those birds knew we were there. They would come right up to the windows and stare in…. even though we knew it was impossible for them to see us through that expensive glass. The grassy field where ZooGuides
parked became a muddy monster intent on swallowing cars. Worst of all the discomforts the ZooGuides and staff endured was the fact that there was no bathroom. During 3-hour watches in the cold, the nearest bathroom facility for ZooGuides was a 30-minute round trip walk! However, when the sun came out, the birds would spread their wings to warm themselves. Or one of the huge birds would abruptly take wing. The sound of their wings flapping can be heard through the whole building. Suddenly the “magic” was there. As our reward for the many silent, cold hours of watching, we discovered the wonderful enchantment of these huge birds for ourselves.
The first week of January, Oregon had a severe cold snap. Snow and ice brought the city to a halt, closing the zoo and the Portland airport for a record 6 days. The remaining ZooGuide watches were cancelled as the icy roads out into the country were dangerous and the walk from the parking lot to the breeding building was under water.
Despite fears to the contrary, the condors did fine. Pre-mating behavior was observed in several pairs and two were actually caught “in the act.” On March 10, 2004, Tama, a bird sent to us from the Los Angeles Zoo, produced our first egg. We had been told that we would probably lose a breeding season due to the movement of the birds from their old homes to the new facility at Condor Creek. Therefore, the arrival of this first egg was truly exciting for everyone.
Joe and the condor staff decided to leave the egg with its parents for several days to help ensure a good start for the chick inside, then it was removed in hopes Tama would lay a second egg. The first egg was placed in artificial incubation, candled on March 17, and found to be fertile. Just before it was due to hatch, the egg was given to foster parents, condors #137 and #147, who looked on as the chick began to pip (break its shell) and fully hatch on Mother’s Day, May 9 (a process taking several days). Foster mother #147 monitored the egg constantly, even assisting by removing eggshell fragments for the chick inside. Our first fuzzy little chick was born and is doing well. As of this date (May 30, 2004), hopes are high for its success.
The story doesn’t end here. By the time you this, we hope to have many more success stories to tell you about the progress of the Oregon Zoo’s Condor Creek breeding facility.
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Links for more information on California Condors and the recovery program, some of which were also used for r research for this paper:
http://www.oregonzoo.org/ConservationResearch/ffw/ffw3sept03.htm – Why should we care? What is the purpose of a zoo?