Three California condors from the Oregon Zoo will be released into the Vermillion Cliffs Monument in northern Arizona March 7, soaring into the open skies that will finally be their home.
Meriwether (No. 379), Nootka (No. 447) and Atya (No. 455) were hatched and raised at the zoo before being transferred to the Peregrine Fund's World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise to prepare for their release. Meriwether was transferred in January 2007, Nootka and Atya in October 2008.
"With every successful condor release we're another step closer to seeing condors fly over the skies of Oregon," said Tony Vecchio, zoo director. "One day, Oregonians may again see what Lewis and Clark saw as they traveled along the Columbia River over 200 years ago.
The world's total population of endangered condors flying free is 169 in Arizona, California and Mexico.
Condors, the largest land birds in North America, have wingspans of up to 10 feet and weigh 18 to 30 pounds. They are highly intelligent and inquisitive, often engaging in play-like activities, such as throwing old bones into the air and other social behavior. The one thing condors do not do very well, however, is avoid things that aren't good for them, such as colliding with high-power transmission lines, eating contaminated carcasses, drinking polluted water and avoiding shooters.
Condor fatality is higher than it should be in areas where high towers carrying power transmission line stretch across good soaring and hunting country. That is going to make an Oregon release very difficult, especially on the east side of the Cascades where transmission lines cross hundreds of miles of excellent condor habitat.
It is the condor's awesome eyesight that often brings them into human contact. During the "Condor Talks," held daily by National Park Service Interpreters on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park - close to the Vermillion Cliffs where condors are regularly released into the wild condors often give the visitors thrilling "fly-bys" checking to see if they have dropped off a dead cow or two for them.
All except two of the condors in the wild are from parents in captivity and carry a numbered wing tag and locating transmitter. Topa Topa, the great, great grandfather condor in the photo above was one of the original surviving condors in the wild, taken into captivity and kept at the Los Angeles Zoo in the late 70s.
About 10,000 years ago, condors ranged across much of North America. By 1940, that range had been reduced to the coastal mountains of Southern California and one site in the lower Willamette Valley. In 1987 the 17 condors remaining in the wild were brought into captivity and a captive-breeding program was developed.
There is no doubt that in the near future condors will be released in Oregon. Where and when is still up for discussion, but with the Oregon Zoo having so much success in propagating condors, and wildlife biologists searching for historical condor nesting sites, it will only be a matter of time. Once that occurs it will be time to change the condor's common name to the "North American Condor" as it will once again soar high above the skies of Mexico, hopefully all the way to Canada.