Condors of the Columbia

We had just finished looking at a Bald Eagle exhibit and rounded a corner. The sign I encountered puzzled me.


I hadn’t realized that the historical range of the California Condor extended north to Oregon – and beyond.


Historical and current range map

I was visiting the Oregon Zoo in Portland with three friends from college – an unlikely, but fortuitous adventure for four women in their mid-70’s.

Ever since I had the opportunity to see a California Condor in the wild in Northern Arizona in 2006 (read the story here), I have been fascinated by the recovery story of this vulture with a wingspan of 10 feet.

AZ Vermillion---condor-info

wingspan comparison with other large raptors – sign near Vermilion Cliffs release site

According to the Oregon Zoo’s website, the territory of the California Condor extended north to the Canadian border and east to the Rocky Mountains. At the time of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the condor could be seen soaring over the river and it feasted on beached whale carcasses along its mouth.

Native Americans describe its presence even earlier, and it is mentioned in their mythology. I had no idea that the Thunderbird seen on some totem poles, was a condor.


Thunderbird on totem pole in Vancouver, WA (seen on family vacation 1988)

Unfortunately, they have not bred in the wild of the Pacific Northwest for over a century.

Despite being the first species listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1973, their numbers continued to dwindle, primarily due to effects of DDT and lead bullets, until in 1987 there were only 22 wild birds remaining. Under the supervision of the USFWS, these twenty-two birds were captured and taken into the recovery program. In 2003, the Oregon Zoo became a partner in the recovery program and built a breeding barn and flight pens at the zoo’s Jonsson Wildlife Conservation Center.

When six breeding pairs arrived in November 2003, it was the first time in over 100 years that California Condors had spread their wings in Oregon. The breeding program is one of four. The other breeding programs are at the Los Angeles Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park and the Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise

My friends and I walked down the path and arrived at the “Condors of the Columbia” exhibit where three condors that are not able to be released in the wild currently live. While my friends meandered on, I watched in fascination as the condors flew back and forth


from perch to perch as if they were playing.


At the far end of the exhibit one of the condors was eating. Despite a sign indicating that it might be uncomfortable to look at, a small boy watched fascinated.


Condor feeding on calf carcass

At the Jonsson Wildlife Center, the juvenile condors are moved to a flight pen when they are about eight months old where they begin their flight fitness preparations and learn to socialize with adult “mentor” condors. They also receive aversion training that teaches them not to land on power poles. A mock power pole in their enclosure is rigged to provide a mild electric shock if they land on it.

Oregon-raised condors then move to field pens at one of the five release sites in central California and northern Arizona. After several months in the field pens, they are released into the wild. The Oregon Zoo hopes that one day a release site will be able to be established in the Pacific Northwest. However, that is not possible at this time since Oregon does not yet have laws prohibiting the sale and use of lead bullets.

Pairs are now successfully breeding in the wild in northern Arizona and California. The juveniles are radio-tagged so the release teams can keep track of them. When they are almost one year old, they begin to wander and explore nearby areas. Sometimes their wandering can take them far afield.

On April 20, 2015, Condor #680 (tag N8) was reported by the Condor Cliffs Facebook Page as having moved into New Mexico where it spent the night at Navajo Lakes.

The next day, a friend who lives in Los Alamos came home and discovered a California Condor in his yard. It had been attracted to raven activity. When he texted me this picture, I thought it was a joke.

Fitzgibbon CACO

California Condor visits Los Alamos – photo by Joe Fitzgibbon

It then flew into the Jemez Mountains where it was photographed feasting on a cow carcass. The next day it returned to northern Arizona.

I was glad for the opportunity to see the California Condor up close and observe its activities. It was even more exciting to be updated on the success of the breeding and reintroduction programs.


Maybe with enough public will, lead bullets will be restricted in Oregon, and the condor can once again roam along the Columbia River.





3 thoughts on “Condors of the Columbia

  1. Interesting and informative post, Judy. I have had only distant views of this magnificent species, also at the Grand Canyon. Tried to find them on their haunts on the way to Lake Powell but the road was closed.

  2. Pingback: Blog Birding #291 « ABA Blog

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