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California condor exhibit opens at Oregon Zoo

by: OREGON ZOO / PHOTO BY MICHAEL DURHAM - A California condor at the new Condors of the Columbia exhibit at the Oregon Zoo, which opens this weekend.The Oregon Zoo will open its new California condor exhibit to the public this weekend.

Up-close views of the colorful, charismatic and critically endangered birds are among the attractions of the new Condors of the Columbia exhibit. It is located between Cougar Crossing and the Family Farm, in the Great Northwest section of the zoo.

“This isn’t your standard aviary,” said Kelli Walker, the zoo’s senior condor keeper. “It is a home for pterodactyl-sized scavengers with complex social structures and specialized feeding habits.”

Although originally native to the region and commonly seen here during the time of Lewis and Clark, the continent’s largest bird hasn’t soared through Northwest skies for more than a century. Now three of the enormous birds moved into the new space, where they have drawn the interest of nearby visitors. According to keepers, the birds have been equally interested in people-watching.

“They’ve been hard to miss when they’re perched 20 feet up and sunning those impressive 10-foot wingspans,” said Gwen Harris, the zoo’s senior keeper of birds. “But once the privacy fencing goes away, the views will be even better. Kaweah has been coming right up to the window to interact with staff and volunteers.”

Named for the “buzzards of the Columbia” mentioned in Meriwether Lewis’ expedition journal, the new habitat is the third of eight major projects funded by the community-supported zoo bond measure. In designing the new exhibit, staff drew inspiration from the Jonsson Center for Wildlife Conservation, where the zoo has bred condors since 2003 as part of the national California Condor Recovery Program.

At both the Jonsson Center and the zoo, condors are fed via an airlock-style room, where doors open and food “magically appears.” This prevent the birds from associating humans with food, an association that could hinder their survival once they are released.

Opening one year to the day after its 2013 groundbreaking, the $2.3 million Condors of the Columbia project was completed on schedule and under-budget, zoo officials said. It is the most recent project to be funded by the 2008 zoo bond measure promoting animal welfare and sustainability.

“This will be an inspirational grand opening,” said Heidi Rahn, bond program director. “Our community made this possible. They created something that should motivate generations of visitors to take action for endangered species. And there’s a lot more to look forward to in the years ahead. We’re approaching the halfway point on construction for Elephant Lands, and next spring we’ll be breaking ground on a new education center.”

The California condor was one of the original animals included on the 1973 Endangered Species Act and is classified as critically endangered. In 1982, only 22 individuals remained in the wild and by 1987, the last condors were taken into captivity in an attempt to save the species. Thanks to breeding programs like the Oregon Zoo’s, condor numbers now total more than 400, with the majority of those flying free.

The Oregon Zoo is a service of Metro. Its mission is to inspire the community to create a better future for wildlife. As part of that mission, the zoo is currently working to save endangered California condors, Oregon silverspot and Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies, western pond turtles and Oregon spotted frogs. Other projects include studies on Asian elephants, polar bears, orangutans and giant pandas. The zoo relies in part on donations through the Oregon Zoo Foundation to undertake these and many other animal welfare, education and sustainability programs.

The zoo opens at 9 a.m. daily and is located five minutes from downtown Portland, just off Highway 26. The zoo is also accessible by MAX light rail line. Visitors who travel to the zoo via MAX receive $1.50 off zoo admission. Call TriMet Customer Service, 503-238-RIDE (7433), or visit www.trimet.org for fare and route information.

General zoo admission is $11.50 (ages 12-64), $10 for seniors (65 and up), $8.50 for children (ages 3-11) and free for those 2 and younger. Additional information is available at www.oregonzoo.org or by calling 503-226-1561.