Oregon Zoo launches California condor breeding program

PORTLAND, Ore. — The California condor has returned to Oregon almost a century after the largest bird native to North America disappeared from the Northwest.

The journals of Lewis and Clark recorded condor sightings along the Columbia River during their historic expedition in the early 1800s, but the last sighting of a condor in Oregon was in1904.

On Thursday, the Oregon Zoo officially opened the fourth condor breeding facility in the nation to help expand a condor population that had fallen to a desperate low of 22 birds in the wild a decade ago.

"Their situation was more dire than the gorillas in Rwanda or the pandas in China," said Kim Westcott, spokeswoman for the Grand Canyon National Park Foundation, which raises money to support a similar recovery program in Arizona.

The bird once ranged from the Atlantic to Pacific coasts and was part of the cultural heritage of many Indian tribes, including the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs in Oregon and the Hopi, Navajo and Paiute tribes of the Southwest, according to Elaine Leslie, a National Park Service biologist who supervises the Grand Canyon condor recovery project.

The bird became known as the California condor because its population shrank to a handful of areas in that state, "but it had been just ‘condor’ for ages," Leslie said.

The condor is related to the vulture and feeds only on the remains of dead animals, serving an important role in the ecosystem as a scavenger, she said.

The bird has a wingspan that can stretch to 10 feet, allowing it to glide and soar high for hours in search of food.

"The Warm Springs tribes called it the thunderbird, " said Tony Vecchio, Oregon Zoo director.

Oregon Zoo staff first met with the California Condor Recovery Team in October 2000 to discuss expanding the program to Oregon. After inspecting condor breeding facilities at the Los Angeles Zoo and San Diego Wild Animal Park, the Oregon Zoo made a proposal to join the recovery effort that was strongly supported by the Audubon Society of Portland, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service.

The Oregon breeding project, located in the rural expanse of the Mount Hood foothills southeast of Portland, plans to have 32 birds — 16 mated pairs — producing chicks that will be introduced to the wild, Vecchio said.

The birds will be closely monitored by zookeepers and biologists, but they will try to minimize their influence on the adult condors in order to maximize the survival chances of the young birds.

"It’s a hard thing for zookeepers who are used to developing a rapport with animals," Vecchio said. "With the condors, it’s exactly the opposite — we don’t want them associated with people so we’re going to be kind of like ‘stealth’ zookeepers and stay out of their way."

The birds have no natural predators, but they face hazards that include lead pollution from spent shot concentrated in the entrails of deer and other game animals discarded by hunters, illegal hunting and harmful plastic garbage and other trash scattered around dump sites.

Leslie welcomed the Oregon Zoo program because federal funding has been extremely tight, forcing the recovery projects to rely on private and public donations.

She said the recent successful hatching of a condor chick in the Grand Canyon, followed by its first flight on Nov. 5, has been a "very positive step" for the program, but it will likely take at least another 10 years before biologists can declare recovery efforts a success.

Copyright ©2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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