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Condor #350 is tended to by Julie Ponder and another Raptor Center staffer.

Condor #350 has been a delightful new challenge for Raptor Center staff, including Julie Ponder, right, associate director of the center.

Three weeks of the condor

A young California condor is making life interesting for people at the U's Raptor Center

By Deane Morrison

November 22, 2005

A young, inquisitive male California condor with a broken wing bone has been delighting staff at the University's Raptor Center since his arrival on November 8. Known only as Condor #350, the 18-month-old bird was injured November 4 near his home range on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. He is one of only four condors that have hatched and survived in the wild this year. During his stay here, the youngster has been undergoing exams and physical therapy, exploring his room (private, of course), and playing with toys. It seems condors are partial to ripping up phone books, so Raptor Center staff gave him one, along with a kong (a big, red hard rubber bouncy toy for dogs) and a large chewy bone. He's also healing nicely. "We're ahead of schedule on bone repair," says Julie Ponder, the veterinarian in charge of #350's care and the associate director of the center. "His joint function, extension, and range of motion are all good, and his wing is no longer immobilized. We had planned to do surgery, but pre-op radiographs showed rapid bone growth and only slight displacement [of bone at the site of injury]."

"We're both thrilled and humbled to have the opportunity to care for this magnificent bird," says Patrick Redig, director of the Raptor Center.

The condor still has some pain in his wing, but Ponder says it should clear up soon. In any case, #350 won't be released to the wild until he is comfortable, healed, and able to use his wing normally. What caused the injury isn't known, but it could have been a forced landing in high wind or the result of harassment from a golden eagle, Ponder says. Field biologists in Arizona perform controlled feeding of condors in order to avoid lead poisoning of this rare species, and it's possible #350 got into a scuffle with an eagle, which also will occasionally scavenge. Here at the University, #350 gets regular helpings of fresh food, including jackrabbit, chicken, and even the donated front leg from a deer carcass. But, true to his identity as a carrion connoisseur, he prefers food that's aged a bit, Ponder says. Representatives of the Peregrine Fund and the Phoenix Zoo flew the bird on Northwest Airlines to the Raptor Center for evaluation and treatment. The condor is expected to remain hospitalized for another week or so, after which he will be returned to Arizona in preparation for release on the North Rim. "This speaks volumes about the Raptor Center's national reputation as the premier medical center for birds of prey," says Jeffrey Klausner, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine. "This endangered condor was sent all the way from Arizona to be treated by the best veterinarians at the University of Minnesota." The California condor is North America's largest land bird, weighing up to 22 pounds with a wingspan of nine and a half feet. A highly endangered species, its population reached a low of 22 in 1982 due to lead poisoning and habitat degradation. Since then, captive breeding programs at the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho; San Diego Wild Animal Park; Los Angeles Zoo; and Oregon Zoo and release efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have resulted in a slow recovery for the species. There are currently 274 California condors in the world--127 in the wild in Arizona and California, 133 in captivity, and 14 awaiting release. At about 20 pounds, #350 is not only large but strong. It takes two people, suited up in goggles and leather gauntlets, chest, and shoulder protectors, to handle him. "We're both thrilled and humbled to have the opportunity to care for this magnificent bird," says Patrick Redig, director of the Raptor Center. "We're putting our years of knowledge and experience in fracture management to work, as well as making every effort to prevent the condor from becoming habituated." Habituation--becoming too comfortable around humans--can occur in condors and other wildlife that have regular contact with people, which is detrimental to their survival. But while the condor isn't getting attached to people, the reverse may not be quite true. "He's magnificent--he's so prehistoric-looking," says Ponder. "I feel a desire to follow this bird closely in the future. He's one of my more intriguing cases."