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Day of the Condor: Chick Bred in Captivity Hatches

Times Staff Writer

A $20-million baby hatched at the San Diego Wild Animal Park on Friday, to the delight and relief of the humans who have eagerly awaited the arrival of the first California condor both conceived and hatched in captivity.

Oblivious to the fact that it cost about as much as an F-16 jet fighter, the 6 3/4-ounce avian celebrity immediately went to sleep.

“This chick represents a big step back from the brink of extinction and a big step forward for recovery of the California condor,” Secretary of the Interior Donald P. Hodel said. “The hatching of the world’s first captive-bred condor is a milestone that we’ve been awaiting for years. It shows what time, patience, perseverance and cooperation by both the public and private sectors can accomplish for endangered species.”

Keepers at the park--who had been baby-sitting the egg 24 hours a day since Sunday--decided at noon Friday to assist the bird in breaking through the shell. They used their fingers, a cotton swab, and sprayed a saline solution into the egg to keep the egg’s membrane moist. Finally, at 5:38 p.m., the chick was taken out of the shell and placed immediately in a hospital newborn baby isolette.

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The chick was named Moloko, a Northern Maidu Indian word for condor. The animal park officials had extended an invitation to the Native American Heritage Commission to name the bird in acknowledgement of Indians’ respect for condors.

They intervened at noon Friday, earlier than they had anticipated. Keepers planned to help the chick 72 hours after it first pipped through its shell. “It may well be this chick would have hatched entirely on its own at the 72-hour mark . . . but we wanted to lean the odds in favor of the bird” by offering it earlier assistance, said Bill Toone, curator of birds.

The chick will be watched carefully and fed its first meal of minced mouse and egg yolk within a day of hatching, park spokesman Tom Hanscom said.

In a few days it will graduate to what is even more appetizing for baby condors: partially digested food regurgitated by other vultures at the park.

Although there is still a chance the chick could die from post-hatching infection, getting it this far represents a milestone for the federal-state-private sector program to reintroduce California condors to Southern California skies as early as 1992. All 28 condors known to be in existence reside in zoos in San Diego and Los Angeles.

Since 1980, the United States, California and private groups such as the San Diego Zoo and National Audubon Society have poured more than $20 million into saving the California condor from extinction, according to figures provided by the various groups.

That includes at least $15 million from the federal government, $3 million from the state of California, $1 million from the Zoological Society of San Diego, $1 million from the National Audubon Society and $325,000 from the Los Angeles Zoo.

The figure does not include spending that goes back as far as the 1940s for some groups, the day-to-day operating costs of caring for the condors, or smaller or in-kind contributions from other agencies and private groups.

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That $20-million price tag is sure to increase as the breeding program pushes for its goal of establishing two 100-bird flocks in California--and it points to the folly of letting species decline so far that a Herculean effort is necessary to save them, say people involved in the condor recovery effort.

“It’s extremely expensive to do it this way,” noted Ron Jurek, wildlife biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game. “It’s a lot less expensive to not let the species get that far down.”

Politically, the new chick also represents vindication for a project that has had its share of naysayers over the years.

The California condor once ranged all along North America’s coastline, from British Columbia through Baja California, along the Gulf of Mexico and northward from Florida to New York. By 1900, however, it had declined to about 100 birds, all in California. The population fell steadily throughout this century, reaching 40 birds by 1976.

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When the formal condor recovery program began in 1975, the aim was to leave adults in the wild but to artificially incubate any eggs to increase the birds’ reproduction rate. However, after an alarming increase in deaths from lead poisoning in 1984-85, capturing all the remaining birds was proposed.

The last condor to spread its 9-foot wings above California was captured in April, 1987.

Before Friday’s hatching, the last California condor eggs laid in captivity, all infertile, were laid in the 1920s at the National Zoo in Washington. The 13 eggs successfully hatched at the San Diego Wild Animal Park since 1983 all came from wild nests.

Those juveniles plus the captured adults now total 27 birds, 14 of them in San Diego and 13 at the Los Angeles Zoo.

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State-of-the-art techniques, such as genetic “fingerprinting,” will be used to pair the birds to assure preservation of as much genetic diversity in the birds as possible, and juveniles will be released in groups of at least three beginning as early as 1992.

So far, only the pairing of two San Diego birds has produced an egg, but officials hope condor pairs in San Diego and Los Angeles will lay as many as six eggs next year, Hanscom said. New flight cages that will be built with a $500,000 state appropriation, approved last week by the governor, eventually could house up to 20 breeding pairs--for a breeder’s dream of 20 to 60 chicks a year.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service alone is spending about $850,000 a year on research to get ready for the day when some of those young will be allowed to fly free, said Joseph J. Dowhan, coordinator of the condor project for the agency.

That includes releasing 10 to 20 captive-reared Andean condors this summer to study their adjustment to the wild, as a prototype for California condor releases.

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Times staff writer Tom Gorman contributed to this story.


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