Earlier this month, biologists at Pinnacles National Park watched excitedly as California condor No. 912, who hatched there six months ago, embarked on an awkward but successful “test flight” from its cliff-side nest to a nearby gray pine.
“This is tremendously gratifying news,” said Dr. David Shepherdson, the Oregon Zoo’s deputy conservation manager. “It’s the third consecutive year that a wild-hatched condor has successfully fledged from a nest at Pinnacles; and two of those three young are directly descended from the first chick to come out of our recovery program here at the zoo.”
The Oregon Zoo’s Jonsson Center for Wildlife Conservation has raised and prepped more than 50 California condors for release since joining the nationwide effort to save this critically endangered species.
This year’s young fledgling at Pinnacles is the offspring of No. 340 — aka Kun-Wak-Shun — the first chick to hatch at the Jonsson Center back in 2004. Kun-Wak-Shun has been flying free since 2005 and now lives at Pinnacles and the surrounding lands of central California, where he and his mate are raising No. 912 together.
“In 2016 we saw the first generation of wild-hatched condors flying at Pinnacles in more than a hundred years,” said Travis Koons, who oversees the zoo’s condor recovery efforts. “The goal is to establish a self-sustaining population that someday re-inhabits the species’ full historical range, and this is an important step along the way.”
Though he is a prolific father and considered Pinnacles’ most dominant male, Kun-Wak-Shun has led a taxing life since leaving Oregon. As with nearly every condor flying in the wild today, he’s been treated for lead poisoning multiple times — 12 to be exact. He also lost his first mate, No. 444, to the effects of lead poisoning.
But like a true Oregonian, No. 340’s got grit. Following his treatments, he paired with another female condor — San Diego Zoo-hatched female No. 236, who was released in 2002 at Big Sur, about a 40-mile flight from Pinnacles. The duo has been bonded now for four years.
Breeding programs like the Jonsson Center’s are largely to thank for success stories like Kun-Wak-Shun’s. The influx of zoo-bred birds has pushed the number of free-flying condors to more than 10 times what it was in 1987, when conservationists caught up the last 22 wild condors in a last-ditch effort to save the species.
“We now have more condors flying in the wild than we do in captivity,” said Kelly Sorenson, executive director of the Ventana Wildlife Society in Central California. “But that doesn’t mean we don’t need the help of zoos anymore.”
Lead poisoning remains the leading cause of death in free-flying condors, according to Sorenson — specifically, lead-based ammunition.
Although lead has been widely eliminated from paint, gasoline and water pipes, it remains the metal of choice for ammunition manufacturers. And — like eagles and other scavengers — condors can ingest the toxin when they eat the remains of an animal that’s been shot with lead ammunition.
“Anyone who shoots an animal with lead ammunition can accidentally poison scavenging animals,” said Leland Brown, non-lead hunting education coordinator at the Oregon Zoo. “Shown the unintended consequences of using lead, many have started to switch to non-lead ammunition.”
The California condor was one of the original animals included on the 1973 Endangered Species Act and is classified as critically endangered. Thanks to breeding programs like the Oregon Zoo’s, condor numbers now total more than 460, with the majority of those 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 70 chicks have hatched at the Jonsson Center since 2003, and more than 50 Oregon Zoo-reared birds have gone out to field pens for release. Several eggs laid by Oregon Zoo condors have been placed in wild nests to hatch.
California condor 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. For more information, visit oregonzoo.org/Condors.
Source: Oregon Zoo