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A California Zoo's Cultured Vultures May Save the Endangered Condor

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They are, admittedly, youngsters that even a mother might find hard to love. Tiny, gray and awkward, they spend most of their time sleeping—when they’re not dining on their favorite cuisine of mouse meat and mush regurgitated by other captive vultures. But each of these two unprepossessing specimens—that’s Tecuya above and Sisquoc on the right—will one day have a nine-foot wingspan, with black-and-white plumage and a brilliant orange head. They are California condors, the first two subjects in the San Diego Wild Animal Park’s daring program to save the endangered species of vulture, of which only 20 survive in the wild. The aim is to hatch and raise condors in captivity and release them so that future generations of Californians can enjoy their majestic presence. “The California condor was a supreme spirit to the Chumash Indians,” says breeding program director Bill Toone, 27. “These birds inspire awe and respect.”

They also engender a lot of work. Toone and his associate, biologist Noel Snyder, “kidnap” the eggs from their nests for several reasons. Most important, removing a first egg usually stimulates the parent to lay a second, thus doubling the flock’s slow reproduction rate. Also, chicks have a 50 percent mortality in the wild, and the adult population has been increasingly threatened by shooting, pesticides and destruction of their natural habitat.

To capture Sisquoc, Toone and Snyder camped out for four days in a remote area of Ventura County until both parent condors left the nest. Then the men deftly removed the egg, hiked a mile across a canyon, and helicoptered back to San Diego. The egg containing Tecuya was lifted 10 days later from a cliff-face nest by a nimble climber. Both eggs were incubated for more than a month. When the chicks started to peck through their shells, Toone’s wife, Cyndi Kuehler, a hatchery technician at the San Diego Zoo, played the role of mother condor, helping them chip their way into the outside world.

Tecuya and Sisquoc are fed every two to three hours by a zoo employee wearing a condor puppet on his hand. “Birds are not real bright,” Toone explains. “They think anything that feeds them is Mom and Dad, and that image becomes imprinted.” The puppet makes the chicks think they are being cared for by a condor; otherwise, says Toone, “they would want to live and mate with people and not be birds.”

Toone hopes the chicks may someday make up the nucleus of a captive breeding program. It’s too early to determine their sex, but if they are female, Toone would like to mate his chicks with three male condors now in captivity at the Los Angeles Zoo. In any case, he vows, the chicks’ offspring will one day return to the wild. “My spine never tingles from seeing the birds in captivity,” he says. “I want to see them flying over fields, and I want my kid to be able to see these California condors in the wilderness.”