California condor breeding program at Oregon Zoo grows
The Oregon Zoo’s California condor breeding program expects to hatch more condor chicks. The program received financial backing from Avangrid Renewables, a Portland-based wind-power company, which aims to offset possible condor deaths due to their wind farms. We hear from Oregon Zoo veterinarian Kelly Flaminio about what the program has been able to do for condors, and why the species is important.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave miller. In 1989 there were only 22 California condors left on the planet. The huge, winged, high flying scavengers were on the road to extinction. So conservationists started a decades-long captive breeding program that continues to this day. The numbers are encouraging. In 2019, the National Park Service said that there were more than 500 condors in the West. The Oregon Zoo has had its own condor breeding program since 2003. It recently announced that it’s expanding the program with new funding from an unusual source, a wind energy company, which is basically paying for the zoo to raise more condors as a way to make up for birds that might be killed by their turbines. Kelly Flaminio is veterinarian at the zoo. She joins us to talk about the condor program. Welcome to Think Out Loud.
Kelly Flaminio: Hi, thank you.
Dave Miller: Can you describe the life cycle of the condors in the zoo’s breeding program?
Kelly Flaminio: Sure. We at the Oregon Zoo have 14 breeding pairs. They’re located at our offsite facility. And those pairs start to perform breeding behaviors with each other usually around December and January of every year. And then around March we get our first eggs which is very exciting. The eggs incubate for 57 days and then we get a great little fluffy chick and then that chick is raised by the parents or a surrogate pair in our breeding facility. And once the chick fledges, which means it leaves the nest and it’s ready to fly out onto the perches, then we move all the chicks from that year into what we call a pre-release pen. And in that pen, they’re with a mentor condor that teaches them how to be a bird in the wild. And then when they’re about 15 months of age, they get released into the wild at one of our three release sites.
Miller: What you just described is really different from the life cycle and daily experiences of most animals in the zoo that are not destined for a life in the wild. How does the fact that the whole point of raising these animals is that they’re going to be released, how does it affect the way you care for them?
Flaminio: It is very different from how we care for the other animals at the zoo that will spend their life in captivity. These birds are raised off site with almost no human interaction. The animals are fed through what’s called a blind, which means they never see humans offering them food. The food is dropped into the food room through a blind and then it appears and the animals will eat. So they do not associate food or anything positive with people. And the goal of that is so that, when they’re released into the wild, they act like normal wild birds and they’re not drawn to people and habituated towards the presence of people.
Miller: Do you ever, though, as a veterinarian, get a chance to be up close to these birds that have about a 10 ft wingspan in the full size birds?
Flaminio: Yeah, they are incredible birds. As a veterinarian, we do examine all of our birds that are residents here and part of the breeding program every other year. It’s important to us to make sure that they remain healthy and that they’re vaccinated for West Nile virus. So we do that every other year with our adults. With the chicks, they do receive a chick exam to make sure that they’re developing appropriately, they get vaccinated for the West Nile virus and then, before they are placed into the pre-release pen, they’re wing tagged, which you’ll see in a lot of the pictures of the condors. And that’s so we know who each individual bird is. So I do get some interaction with them. But when we interact with them we make sure that their heads are covered so they’re not seeing us and that we do not talk at all around them. So we communicate with hand signals when we’re working with the condors.
Miller: Wow, all of that. To just erase to the best ability, I mean they’re in a very controlled human environment, but to erase the human interaction. They don’t even hear you talk.
Flaminio: That’s correct. Yeah.
Miller: What do you look for in a condor mentor, the slightly older condor who’s going to teach the young ones how to be condors in the wild?
Flaminio: Condors are very social birds and they will exist in flocks and there’s a hierarchy in the flock. So we are looking for a mentor bird to basically teach the young birds where they fall in that flock [hierarchy] so they have good, what we call, condor manners. The other thing that we have in our pre-release pen is a mock power line. The power pole teaches them -- with a very, very mild shock -- not to land on power poles in the wild. While our mock power pole will give them a very, very, very small shock, just like an invisible fence dog collar shock, power poles in the wild have actually killed some condors. So we want to make sure that they understand what the power pole is and to stay away from those in the wild. So that’s something that’s important in our pre-release pen, that the mentor bird teaches the chicks not to land on that particular perch.
Miller: I should point out that, this past Tuesday, as part of our conversation with the Oregon science and environment and nature writer Emma Marris, we did spend some time talking more broadly about the history of the condor breeding programs in the US. You can find that on our website, opb.org/thinkoutloud. (https://www.opb.org/article/2021/07/06/think-out-loud-wild-souls-author-emma-marris)
Kelly Flaminio, how much do you know about what happens to the Oregon raised condors when they’re eventually released in, from what I’ve read, either Arizona or California or Mexico?
Flaminio: We actually know a lot. Like I mentioned, each bird has a wing tag. So each bird has a very specific number and we’re able to track them with those wing tags. And most of the birds are also fitted, before they’re released, with a GPS backpack. So the biologists at each release site can track where those birds are going. Which is actually really interesting because we’re learning more about how the flocks are integrating, the southern California flock and the central California flock, in particular. So that’s great information that we can gain from the free ranging condors. We can also make sure that we know if they’re getting into trouble; we can go and check and see what’s happening if that GPS backpack hasn’t moved within a couple of days.
Miller: So, if wildlife biologists see a stationary GPS, they might go to that location and check up on some particular condor?
Flaminio: That’s correct. And sometimes the backpack is showing a signal where they’re on private land and so they do communicate with private landowners to get permission to enter their land to see what’s happened to that bird.
Miller: So, as I mentioned, last month the wind energy company, Avangrid Renewables, announced that they’ve gotten permission from the Federal Government for their condor conservation plan. If I understand it correctly, it basically means that they will be spending money so you can increase your efforts at the zoo for the next couple of years. And in return, they won’t be held liable if their turbines kill any condors. What exactly will this company’s support mean for the zoo and what you can do?
Flaminio: Avangrid Renewables’ has been a great grant-funded project. What they’ve allowed us to do is to bring on another fully staffed member out at the condor breeding facility. With more staff we’re able to extend our hours out at the facility so that we can monitor the birds and the chicks from sunup to sundown, which is really important. That way, the condor keepers can intervene if there’s an issue with the pairs or there’s an issue with a chick. And we can make sure that those chicks are raised to healthy sub-adults that are ready for release. That’s been the most important thing that Avangrid has helped us to do is to increase that staffing. Our program runs almost solely on grants and gifts from the public. The more that we can raise for that program, the more condors we’re able to produce each year, which is super important to the US Fish and Wildlife School of Recovery. In order to get a sustainable population, which means that the condors are breeding at a level where they’re able to sustain their population in the wild, the population viability models have shown that we need to continue to captive breed these birds and then release them into the wild as sub-adults.
Miller: How big an issue is mortality from wind turbines?
Flaminio: We don’t have that many mortalities from wind turbines. Our main mortality in the condor population is actually lead toxicity. The condors will consume lead from ammunition from hunting because they’re scavenger birds and so they will ingest lead from animals that are deceased that have been shot. And so one of our main goals is to encourage members of the hunting community to use non-lead ammunition, mainly copper, because this ammunition is not as toxic as lead, not toxic at all.
Miller: My understanding is that it is just a little bit more expensive for hunters?
Flaminio: It is, but there are many programs throughout California and now in Oregon where we’re doing a lead ammunition trade-in. So, we’ll take lead ammunition and then give those hunters copper that will fit their rifles.
Miller: Are conservation groups actually making progress in getting hunters to switch away from lead bullets?
Flaminio: I think that we are. A main portion of our program with the California condor is to encourage people to switch over to copper ammunition. And I think a lot of it is knowledge. Once hunters understand that the copper ammunition fires the same as lead, then they’re more than willing to transfer over. Because the goal is obviously not to injure wildlife, it is to continue to hunt in a sustainable way.
Miller: Have Oregon-raised condors died in California or Arizona after eating lead?
Flaminio: Yeah, I don’t have the numbers, but we have had some deceased. Correct.
Miller: After everything you’ve gone through -- not talking, putting something over their heads, taking care of them, raising them up -- and then they can eat a fragment of a bullet and die.
Flaminio: Yeah. I think it’s really important for people to understand how much time and effort goes into raising just one bird. Each individual is so important to the program that we are super invested into every single bird that we have out there.
Miller: Just briefly, based on the numbers you’re looking at right now, how much longer will captive breeding programs have to continue?
Flaminio: That’s a really good question. We are working with researchers to create a model so that we know when we hit that number. Right now, that number is solely based on our lead ammunition education. And that’s just because we are having such a high mortality due to lead poisoning in the California condor. So I foresee that we’re going to need to continue to captive breed until we get that under control.
Miller: Kelly Flaminio. Thanks very much for joining us today. I appreciate your time.
Flaminio: Thank you.
Miller: Kelly Flaminio is a veterinarian at the Oregon Zoo talking to us about the zoo’s captive breeding program for California condors.
Yesterday on the show, we talked about the increase in camping and hiking during the pandemic. We got a lot of listener feedback, including some voicemails we didn’t have time to play for you yesterday. The first we’re gonna hear right now is from a man who says he lives and camps in the woods.
Caller 1: I’ve been living this way for over five years and I love the lifestyle. It’s what I can afford and it suits me well. But I hate to see people come up and just destroy this place that I love with their garbage and the crap and their lack of knowing how to just leave no trace. It’s pretty disgusting to see what people from Portland can, and do, bring up into the woods. If you’re going to camp, if you are going to come up here, because it’s gotten huge, I’ve seen the huge influx with COVID, people want to get out and they want to be out in the woods, but they need to realize that the impact that they have on the environment, them and their cars and all their camp gear. I make it a big point to leave no trace. I have solar set up. I don’t at all use any power. I don’t leave any mess. I mean every time I leave somewhere, it’s exactly, it’s better than I found it. I think that should be stressed more than anything else. It’s pretty disgusting.
Caller 2: Hi there. My name is Shobha Satya. I’m calling from Portland Oregon. I wanted just to say that the wife and I went camping on June 24. We went up to Joseph to attend the concert of “IN A LANDSCAPE” at Wallowa Lake. And then, because it was going to be so hot in Portland that weekend, we decided to stay and we ventured off into places we had never been before, Hells Canyon. And we camped there by the Imnaha River, I think that’s what it was called. It was beautiful and we took all of our water because there isn’t a whole lot of services up there and we enjoyed ourselves a lot. It was really nice to be out of the heat.
Caller 3: Good morning. My name is Rachel [?] from Mount Angel Oregon. We fall into the category of veteran campers. We’ve seen an enormous uptick in the volume of trash. We’ve also seen people trampling fragile vegetation to get their perfect Instagram shot. And we’ve seen unsafe camping practices such as keeping food in tents or leaving smoldering campfires. It’s really devastating to watch people behave this way. And I wish the Forest Service had greater resources to monitor and find folks for this type of blatant disregard for nature.
Miller: We got one more memorable voicemail. It was from a listener with highly detailed instructions for how to poop in the woods. It’s something we talked about yesterday on the show. Her system involves a number of bags, toilet paper, wipes, a stirring stick and sometimes pine cones. You can listen to her directions, we post them on Facebook and on Twitter if you are interested, and you should because it’s a good listen.
If you’d like to comment on any of the topics in this show, or suggest a topic of your own, please get in touch with us on Facebook or Twitter, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can leave a voicemail for us at 503-293-1983. The call-in phone number during the noon hour is 888-665-5865.
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