Oregon center breeding condors to restore species

CARVER, Ore. – In a wooded location near the Clackamas River, scientists are grooming six captive pairs of California condors in an intensive campaign to rebuild a species that had all but vanished.

Breeding condors is a slow process. A few chicks have been lost. But five have survived in the three years since the program began here.

The 17 captive condors at the Oregon Zoo’s Jonsson Center for Wildlife Conservation are joining 139 others in Idaho and California to breed the resurgent flocks. The goal is to restore wild flights of the legendary scavengers.

The local goal is to have 16 pairs in pens produce up to 32 young a year.

Condors are fearsome, wily creatures with bold red-green-and-blue faces and an ability to soar at 60 mph, two miles high, on wings that span up to 10 feet. These are birds of mythic stature that once awed the native people of the Columbia River.

It’s possible wild birds will fly again one day along the Columbia, perhaps gliding in the decades to come over Clark County, as Lewis and Clark witnessed in 1805. They cruised in search of carrion and cleaned the earth of dead livestock, deer, salmon, seals and sturgeon.

Condors were relentlessly hunted to near extinction through the 19th century. The last wild one seen north of California was spotted at Drain, Ore., in 1904. Other human activities hurt the condors, too. By 1982, only 22 condors remained alive.

Because of a 20-year-old captive breeding program, today there are 138 condors living in the wild. Another 151 are kept at four breeding sites around the West, including in Carver, under sponsorship of the Oregon Zoo. The local program is funded with $3 million in Oregon Zoo Foundation money and individual private grants.

Released to fly free

Since 1995, a number of condors have been released into the wild: as few as nine in 1998 and as many as 28 in 2005.

The wild birds live at Big Sur, Pinnacles National Monument and Ventura County, Calif., and in the Grand Canyon, with a few in Baja California, Mexico. Captive birds live in Carver and at the Los Angeles Zoo, the San Diego Wild Animal Park and the World Center for Birds of Prey at Boise, Idaho.

Wild birds soar on thermal air columns. They can range over 300 miles. The largest birds in North America, they weigh up to 30 pounds, the size of a wild turkey. They can live to be 60 years old or older.

At the Jonsson center in Carver, condor breeding is a full-time job for curator Shawn St. Michael and keeper Kelli Walker.

“We keep an eye on them all the time,” said St. Michael, 37, a self-made bird expert with Portland State University biology and English degrees. The keepers sit in an office a half-mile from the birds’ isolated pens. Unseen and unheard by the birds, the keepers monitor condor life by closed-circuit television.

The keepers feed the birds only dead animals: rats, mice and organic dairy calves, the less desirable male calves that dairy owners sell because they don’t produce milk.

Condor couples naturally lay only one egg every other year, and the chicks take up to seven years to mature, even though they look fully grown at one year. They are released in the wild at two years.

Since it opened in 2003, the Jonsson center has produced five chicks that survived.

Last year, birds at the center produced three eggs, but one chick was lost. The pair of birds, called 137 and 147, laid their first egg, but the egg was laid on concrete and didn’t survive. A pair named Woy and Wiloq laid their second egg; Tama and Mandan also produced an egg.

It looks like 2007 could be an excellent year, said St. Michael, who has worked for the Oregon Zoo since he was a teen volunteer, working with every animal from elephants to fish. Now he’s in charge of all the zoo’s birds.

“We’re still kind of getting up and rolling,” he said. “A lot of our birds when we got them were either young or new pairs. It takes time for these guys to establish pair bonds.”

Chicks get some help

Right now, six pairs of condors are getting ready to produce eggs in February and March. Once the eggs are laid, the staff occasionally steals the eggs from the nests to candle them and make sure they are healthy.

The candling process on the four-inch-long, gray-green eggs involves shining a light through the shell to check the embryo’s position. If the unhatched chick is positioned correctly, it can breathe in an air pocket before pecking its way out. If the embryo is turned wrong, the keepers carefully peck a little hole to help the chick emerge from the shell quicker so it doesn’t need the air pocket.

Keepers also will “double-clutch” the birds to fool them into producing more eggs. They remove an egg from its nest just after the chick “pips,” or breaks out of the egg and starts breathing. Then they place the hatching egg with foster parents, who have been training by sitting on an artificial egg.

When the natural mother returns to the nest and finds her egg gone, she doesn’t panic. She simply lays another one, within about six weeks, St. Michael said. That’s called a “double-clutch.”

By double-clutching, the program will be able to sooner reach its goal of restoring a condor population that’s viable in the wild. The condor recovery plan calls for establishing two geographically separate populations, one in California and the other in Arizona, each with 150 birds and at least 15 breeding pairs.

“We’re nowhere near that point,” said St. Michael. “That will be when there are a number of wild fledges that will be suitable to sustain the population.”

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