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The condors have landed

Galloping around Oregon Zoo with their 9-foot wingspans and bloodshot red heads, in the words of zookeeper Gwen Harris, condors are “goofy” creatures.

by: PHOTO BY MICHAEL DURHAM - Kaweah (42), a California condor in the 'Condors of the Columbia' habitat at the Oregon Zoo.Their feather-ruffling mating signals are especially off the wall to Harris. When they put their heads down, wings out and walk in circles, Harris said, that is their way of saying, “Hey, I’m in the mood. Let’s have a baby.”

After near-extinction during much of the 20th century in the Pacific Northwest, condors now have a $2.3 million home for animal admirers to fawn over their striking features and effervescent personalities. The zoo has participated in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service California Condor Recovery Program in a secret rural Clackamas County location since 2003, hatching 40 chicks in about a decade.

On April 12, the Oregon Zoo opened a 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. One of just a few condor exhibits throughout the world — the third of eight major projects funded by the voter-approved 2008 zoo bond measure — opens to the public May 24. And, until the end of their settling-in period, the huge scavengers will show off from a distance.

The exhibit is a natural destination for condors at the Jonsson Center for Wildlife Conservation in Clackamas County that aren’t genetically valuable for breeding, aren’t effective mentors, and that aren’t suitable for release into the wild. In baseball, the No. 42 was retired after Jackie Robinson broke through racial barriers and became the first black player in the major leagues. At the Oregon Zoo, the number is synonymous with the most inquisitive condor around — Kaweah.

“He’s gonna be the star,” Harris said.

At the Jonsson Center, Kaweah (42) was on thin ice for breaking eggshells and causing general mischief. He also proved to be a lousy mentor. Because zookeepers didn’t feel comfortable sending him off into the wild, they decided to enlist him in an industry that better suits him — the entertainment business.

Though he is a crowd pleaser, his mischievous self hasn’t changed since being placed in the exhibit.

“This guy is a handful,” Harris said. “If you set a tool down, he may take it from you and run off with it.”

But Kaweah is just an extreme representative of a species that is naturally inclined to investigate anything and everything.

“We had to plan it like there was going to be chimpanzees in here. They have very strong beaks. You have to make sure everything is locked. They can tear anything,” Harris said.

Brink of extinction

Lewis and Clark saw tons of condors while traveling through the Oregon Trail and called them the “beautiful buzzards of Columbia.” So the condor exhibit is naturally called “Condors of the Columbia.”

But by the mid-20th century, condors became virtually extinct in the United States. As Harris put it, “People happened.” Because condors are scavengers that prey on dead animal carcasses, farmers’ use of pesticides and hunters’ use of lead to kill animals inflicted massive damage on the species.

“Hundred of birds can be killed by one carcass,” Harris said.

The pesticide DDT, which thins and breaks eggshells, and lead, which Harris says causes condors to “die a slow death from lead poisoning,” left them on the brink of extinction.

With only 22 remaining in the world, in 1987, a group of biologists took the remaining condors and placed them in a captive-breeding program.

Now, there are more than 400 throughout the world. This is in part due to the 1972 banning of DDT for agricultural use in the United States and the world’s agricultural ban of the pesticide in 2001 at the Stockholm Convention.

Despite once going extinct in the Northwest, Harris points out that Oregon condors are typically the strongest and most successful condor around.

“I think it’s because they live in a colder climate and because of that, they just get bigger,” Harris said.

‘Ambassadors for their story’

The exhibit currently holds three condors that vary in size and vivacity. Number 517, or Tyrion, keeps Kaweah company. Harris describes Tyrion as “dopey” and “shy.”

She adds that while he does pal around with the other condor sometimes, he mostly keeps to himself. Tyrion has a severely curved spine, making him an unsuitable candidate for both the breeding program and release into the wild.

On April 16, another condor was added to the exhibit. Its name is 432. He is described by the Oregon Zoo as “mellow.” Number 432 will be held captive for breeding, but they haven’t assigned him a mate yet.

The exhibit itself is filled with natural perches, a high mesh (ceiling), a bevy of rocks and a water stream.

“We were excited to get them moving water,” Harris said. “432 was cannon-balling into the water the other day.”

Harris believes the most important purpose of the exhibit is to raise awareness about the history of the condor species and potential dangers moving forward.

“They are ambassadors for their story,” she said.