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Get the Lead Out
The Oregonian, June 1, 2010

Oregon Zoo hatches a successful California condor season
By Katy Muldoon

The three endangered California condor chicks hatched this spring in the Oregon Zoo's captive breeding program will spend the next five months stomping around inside dark, second-story nest boxes demanding food, building muscles and mustering the moxie to fly.

Meanwhile, six Oregon-bred juvenile condors are on their way to pre-release pens in California and Arizona, where they'll be freed if they behave as wild condors should.

The zoo considers the breeding season that just ended another success in its effort to help bring the flying icons of the American West back from the brink of extinction, said Kelli Walker, lead condor keeper. The species dwindled to a scant 22 animals by the late 1980s.

Since 2003, when it opened the remote Jonsson Center for Wildlife Conservation in Clackamas County, the zoo has hatched about two dozen chicks. Ten Oregon-bred birds are among the approximately 185 California condors that soar the southwestern skies; about 160 live in captive breeding operations such as Oregon's.

One, The Peregrine Fund's World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, plans this weekend to open one of the few exhibits displaying the birds whose wings can span 10 feet. (Information: www.peregrinefund.org/condorcliffs.asp).

The Oregon Zoo hopes to build a similar exhibit, but it's not in the plans this year, spokesman Bill LaMarche said.

Keepers at the condor compound, which is off-limits to the public, are busy caring for 37 birds, including the three newcomers. Their goal: Let the birds breed and grow in as natural an environment as possible so when it's time to release them they can easily slip in to their species' complex social structure and learn to avoid humans, their biggest threat.

Scavengers, condors play an important role in the environment, consuming dead animals. If those animals have been killed with lead ammunition, however, the birds can ingest it. The lead poisons them, and if they're not captured and treated in time, they die.

As the first of this season's Oregon Zoo chicks has, the others soon will get veterinary exams, be vaccinated for West Nile Virus, and be fitted with transponders for future tracking purposes. After about five months in the nest, they'll fledge into the pens their parents occupy.

Late this year, Walker said, the juveniles will move into a large pen with a mentor bird. The mentor, a female, usually is stricter than the chicks' parents. "She keeps the kids on a pretty tight leash," Walker said, hammering home rules of the condor hierarchy that the young birds will need to know once they're set free.

© 2010 Oregon Live LLC

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton