Early Bird Makes Its Debut Just After Sunrise

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The first California condor of the 1990 breeding season hatched early Monday after two keepers at the San Diego Wild Animal Park helped chip away its shell, park officials said.

Tom Hanscom, a park spokesman, said the 6-ounce baby, named Chuhlna, was hatched soon after sunrise, at 6:41 a.m. The bird appeared alert and healthy and spent most of the day sleeping before being fed its first meal: minced mice.

Chuhlna's arrival was cause for celebration at the California Condor Recovery Program, where veterinarians hope to hatch a record number of condors this year. Six other condor eggs are being incubated at the park in San Diego and at the Los Angeles Zoo, Hanscom said, and more still may be laid.

A total of 33 California condors exist, all in captivity and divided between the two facilities. The last-known wild condor was caught in 1987, raising to 27 the number of birds in the recovery program.

Four condors were hatched in 1989, while 1988 produced only one.

Even before Chuhlna hatched, its egg had won the bird some fame. Laid early in the breeding season, on Jan. 15, the egg was the earliest breeding of a California condor since record-keeping of wild condors began in the mid-1800s. The earliest recorded breeding occurred in early February, 1907.

So at 6:30 Monday morning, when Chuhlna, a Kato Indian word meaning Indian doctor, appeared to be stuck inside its shell, park staffers carefully worked to extract it. Two keepers began gently chipping away at the egg and its inner membrane, Hanscom said, working downward from the edges of a quarter-sized hole Chuhlna had pecked.

The keepers worked slowly to avoid rupturing blood vessels, some that still operate outside the bird's body. The blood vessels, while tiny, can cause fatal bleeding if torn even a few minutes before a bird is ready to hatch. But it is not always easy to know when the moment is right, Hanscom said.

"If we knew the birds were ready to hatch, we could just about hatch it like you would a hard-boiled egg--crack it on the side of the counter," he said. "That's pretty much what the mother or father would do. But they know exactly when to do it. We don't."

If the keepers wait too long, however, they run the risk of letting the bird become overtired--another possibly fatal condition. So the painstaking chipping began, and after 11 minutes, the bird was free.

Keepers will monitor Chuhlna around the clock for the next three days, Hanscom said, to watch for signs of weakness or infection. The sex of the bird will remain unknown for months, he said, because condors are monomorphous, meaning both sexes appear to be physically identical. Blood tests to de ermine the sex will likely not be administered until the summer, he said.

The Condor Recovery Program is aimed at re-establishing self-sustaining condor flocks in the California skies. Once a population has been produced in captivity, offspring will be released back into the condor's historic habitat in Southern California, perhaps as soon as 1992.

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