Condor keeper gives chick another crack at life

Condor keeper gives chick another crack at life
Condor keeper Kelli Walker helps an endangered California Condor hatch after the chick experienced complications hatching on its own. Photographed at the Oregon Zoo's Jonsson Center for Wildlife Conservation. © Oregon Zoo / photo by Michael Durham.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Two days after it first tried to hatch from its egg, the Oregon Zoo’s newest California condor successfully made its way into the world March 29.

This second chance at life was made possible by condor keeper Kelli Walker, who stepped in when the chick’s father became confused and stopped brooding the hatching egg.

“We’re so glad the chick is doing well now,” Walker said. “Each hatching is an important step in our work to save the endangered California condor, and it’s also just nice to see the hatchling pull through.”

This complicated hatching wasn’t the first hurdle the egg had faced. In February, Walker had pulled the egg to test its fertility and noticed what appeared to be a small hole in the egg’s shell. After treating the area with sterile water and a diluted antiseptic, Walker used a thin layer of white glue to cover it. Despite the defect, the egg did prove to be fertile, and Walker placed it in an incubator after giving parents Timocho and Willie a dummy egg to brood.

On the morning of March 27, the egg showed signs of an external pip: It was time for the chick to hatch. Walker swapped the egg back into its parents’ nest room, where father Willie took over brooding duties. According to Walker, both parents had done extremely well earlier in the season with incubation and egg-sitting duties, but the hatching process appeared to confuse Willie.

“Caring for a chick is a learning process, and this is only Timocho and Willie’s second egg,” Walker said. “Willie just didn’t seem to know what to do with a hatching egg. He kept gently rolling it around the nesting room, but it needed to be incubated during hatching — Willie was spending too much time off the egg.”

Exposed to the air, the egg’s membrane started to dry out, effectively trapping the chick inside. After quickly retrieving the egg, Walker coated it in a sterile lubrication and placed it in a high-humidity incubator. The warmth and moisture loosened the membrane, and early March 29, Walker was able to help the vocalizing chick restart the hatching process.

“After I pulled away part of the shell, I could see the chick vigorously moving one of its wings,” Walker said. “It was a great sign.”

Reassured that the chick was in good health, Walker once again placed the egg back in the nest room and waited to see how Willie would react. This time, the father did well: He stayed on the egg while it hatched, took a look at his newly emerged chick, and then scooped it out of the remaining shell. He’s been brooding the chick ever since.

Keepers and veterinary staff are optimistic about the chick, but caution that the hatchling isn’t out of the woods yet.

“The chick is doing well, but a lot can happen in a condor’s first few days,” Walker said.

This is the second Oregon Zoo condor to hatch this season, and another three are expected to hatch in the next few weeks.

The California condor is classified as a critically endangered species. In 1982, only 22 individuals remained in the wild. With the help of breeding programs like the Oregon Zoo’s, condor numbers now total around 390, counting those in programs and in the wild.

The Oregon Zoo’s condor recovery efforts take place at the Jonsson Center for Wildlife Conservation, located in rural Clackamas County on Metro-owned open land. The remoteness of the facility minimizes the exposure of young condors to people, increasing the chances for captive-hatched birds to survive and breed in the wild.

More than 30 healthy chicks have hatched at the Jonsson Center since the program began in 2003. Around 20 Oregon Zoo-reared birds have gone out to field pens, with most released to the wild. Last year, three eggs laid by Oregon Zoo condors were placed in wild nests to hatch.

California condor captive-breeding programs are also operated at San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park, the Los Angeles Zoo and the Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey in Idaho. The Oregon Zoo received The Wildlife Society’s conservation award in 2005 for “creating the nation’s fourth California condor breeding facility.”

Condors are the largest land birds in North America with wingspans of up to 10 feet and an average weight of 18 to 25 pounds. They are highly intelligent and inquisitive, and they require a tremendous amount of parental investment in the wild.

Accumulated lead poisoning — a problem that plagues all raptors and scavengers — is the most severe obstacle to the California condor’s recovery. As the birds feed on carrion and other animal carcasses, they can unintentionally ingest lead from bullet fragments. Lead consumption causes paralysis of the digestive track and results in a slow death by starvation. Lead also causes severe neurologic problems, so the birds not only starve but suffer from impaired motor functions.

The California condor had a long history in Oregon. Lewis and Clark saw the large birds as they traveled along the Columbia River. Local archaeologists have unearthed 9,000-year-old condor bones from Native American middens, and condors were a common motif for the designs of Oregon’s Wasco people, who lived along the Columbia River between The Dalles and Cascade Locks. The “Thunderbird” was considered a spiritual guide to the native peoples and is a key character in many myths.

The last native condor seen in Oregon was near the town of Drain in 1904. The birds held out a little longer in California, but by 1987, the last condors were taken into captivity in an attempt to save the species. Biologists decided to place the remaining condors in a captive-breeding program. The California condor was one of the original animals included on the 1973 Endangered Species Act.

For more information about the Oregon Zoo’s California condors, visit www.oregonzoo.org/conserve/species-recovery-and-conservation/california-condors.

The zoo is a service of Metro and is dedicated to its mission of inspiring the community to create a better future for wildlife. In addition to California condors, the zoo is currently working to save endangered Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits, Oregon silverspot and Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies, western pond turtles, Oregon spotted frogs and Kincaid’s lupine. Other projects include studies on black rhinos, Asian elephants, polar bears and bats. The zoo relies in part on community support through donations to The Oregon Zoo Foundation to undertake these and many other animal welfare, education and sustainability programs.
 
The zoo opens at 10 a.m. daily (9 a.m. beginning in March) 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 admission is $10.50 (ages 12-64), $9 for seniors (65 and up), $7.50 for children (ages 3-11) and free for those 2 and younger; 25 cents of the admission price helps fund regional conservation projects through the zoo’s Future for Wildlife program. A parking fee of $4 per car is also required. Additional information is available at www.oregonzoo.org or by calling 503-226-1561.