PORTLAND -- It's been more than a century since condors soared through the skies over Portland.

The majestic birds have been all but wiped out. But now you can come face-to-face with one at the Oregon Zoo.

Three California condors are now living, flying and fraternizing in the new Condors of the Columbia exhibit.

Oregon Zoo Bird Curator Michael Illig said the giant vultures may surprise visitors.

Vultures are very smart, Illig said. We call them monkeys in feathers.

The birds weigh 20 pounds and have a 10-foot wing span. The Condors of the Columbia is the largest condor exhibit in the nation, according Illig.

In the 1980s the charismatic creatures were on the brink of extinction, due in part to hunting and poisoning.

All of them had to be taken out of the wild, Illig said. But because of breeding programs we were able to bring them back. To some people, it s like seeing an extinct dinosaur.

One of those breeding programs is at the Johnson Center in Clackamas. It s helped more than forty condor chicks hatch into the world.

Today, there are over 400 California Condors in captivity or in the wild. It s a success story folks can now learn about and see up close and personal.

The Oregon Zoo exhibit, which opens next week, will give visitors a unique view where the inquisitive birds sometimes wander right up to the viewing glass and peck at a visitor s feet.

It s really amazing to be able to see the red of their eyes and to see their curiosity and their intelligence, said Amy Cutting of the Oregon Zoo.

Illig couldn t agree more.

People think of vultures as ugly but these guys are gorgeous, Illig said.

Zoo visitors can decide for themselves when the Condors of the Columbia exhibit opens on May 24.

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