The images are high-def and crystal clear, but the chick still looks fuzzy. Oregon Zoo videographer Michael Durham believes he has captured some of the clearest close-up footage ever seen of a young condor chick and its parents.
In an eventful week at the zoo’s Jonsson Center for Wildlife Conservation, the last California condor egg of the season arrived on Monday, and — with three of the critically endangered chicks already hatched and wobbling around — Durham also collected his first clear footage of a condor couple tending their fuzzy, month-old offspring in the nest room.
The Jonsson Center, home base for the zoo’s condor recovery efforts, is located in rural Clackamas County on Metro-owned open land. The remoteness of the facility minimizes the exposure of young condors to people, thus increasing the chances for captive-hatched birds to survive and breed in the wild.
But this year — using GoPros purchased with a grant from the Oregon Zoo Foundation — the zoo is getting an inside-the-nest-box look as condor parents Willie and Timocho raise their new chick. The cameras were funded as part of the foundation’s new Advancement Grant program, aimed at supporting needs identified by zoo staff.
“For years, the Jonsson Center has had low-resolution surveillance cameras in place to allow keeper observations of the birds,” Durham said. “But now we’ve got full HD video — this is some of the clearest close-up footage of a condor chick I’ve ever seen.”
Kelli Walker, the zoo’s senior condor keeper, says the new cameras — which are placed at floor level — also offer keepers a completely different bird’s-eye view.
“With the old surveillance cameras, which are mounted from above, you never really saw how active these chicks were,” she said. “But from this perspective, you see the chick playing in the sand and interacting with its dad, Willie — they’re hilarious to watch. The chick is plodding around like a fuzzy little Godzilla. And Willie and Timocho are fantastic parents.”
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All moms have it hard, but few have overcome as much as this chick’s mother, Timocho. Hatched at the Los Angeles Zoo more than 15 years ago, she was released into the wild later that year as part of the national effort to repopulate the critically endangered species.
She did well for several years, but in 2005 she was hit in the face by a shotgun blast. Pellets from the blast damaged one of her eyes and her tongue, and fractured bones in and around her mouth. Though her situation looked bleak, Timocho was nursed back to health and transferred to the Oregon Zoo's breeding program in 2008.
“She can’t go back into the wild,” Walker said, “but she has been able to overcome some serious disabilities. As of this year, she and Willie have now helped six chicks into the world — one a year starting in 2010 — with two now flying free in California and Arizona.”
With three chicks already active in their nest boxes this year, the last egg of the 2015 arrived on Monday, May 4 — more than a month after other chicks began hatching.
“We’re usually done with eggs by now,” Walker said. “This pair — condors No. 90 and No. 121 — traditionally produce eggs late, but this one is really late.”
Walker said the male condor has been aggressive toward his mate, so keepers are keeping the egg in an incubator to prevent any potential damage. The condor parents will sit on a dummy egg until around the end of June, when Walker plans to switch the real egg back so the chick can hatch under their parents.
“They’ve got a little over 50 days to work out their differences,” she said.
Since 2003, 57 chicks have hatched at the Jonsson Center, and 34 Oregon Zoo-reared birds have gone out to field pens, with most released to the wild. In addition, several eggs laid by Oregon Zoo condors have been placed in wild nests to hatch.
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 more than 400, counting those in breeding programs and 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 a species. 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 tract and results in a slow death by starvation. Lead also causes severe neurological problems, so the birds not only starve but also suffer from impaired motor functions.
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 about the Oregon Zoo’s California condors, visit www.oregonzoo.org/Condors.