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California condor chick hatches at California's Pinnacles National Monument

April 7, 2010 |  8:24 pm

Condor

For the first time in more than a century, a California condor chick successfully hatched inside a federal park that once was a domain of the endangered species.

Biologists at Pinnacles National Monument in Central California celebrated the milestone announced Wednesday in the slow recovery of the birds.

But their enthusiasm was tempered because the egg did not belong to any adult birds in the park.

A pair of condors there had conceived an egg in March that biologists then took for safekeeping and replaced with a plastic egg. Biologists later discovered the embryo had died seven days into its development.

"It wasn't surprising the egg wasn't viable," said Daniel George, manager of the condor program at Pinnacles. "That can happen with first-time breeders."

The pair in Pinnacle later hatched an egg that was slipped into their nest after being produced by a pair of condors in the San Diego Wildlife Park captive breeding program.

The chick emerged from its grapefruit-sized shell on March 24. Its sex will be determined soon with blood tests done when it receives its West Nile virus vaccine.

"It's a good step forward for the program," said biologist Joe Burnett of Ventana Wilderness Society, a partner in the recovery program.

Removing new eggs from nests so the gangly birds with nearly 10-foot wingspans don't accidentally destroy them is just part of the tedious recovery effort. Biologists don't want this first generation of new birds to become discouraged if their mating efforts don't pay off.

"It's a tenuous process because you don't know if they will accept it," George said. "So far all of their instincts seem to be operating properly."

Biologists and the public were able to monitor the progress of the birds' 57-day egg-sitting from Scout Peak above the cliff-side nest. Tourists have flocked from as far as Kentucky to see the rare sight, which has not occurred in an area in free view of the public since the recovery program began.

Two days before the hatching, visitors witnessed the sometimes-comical reaction of the birds as the egg began to move and emit noises.

"They'll get up all of a sudden and look at it, then try to reposition it," George said.

In 1982, the last 22 California condors were placed in captive breeding programs. Since then, hunters and lead poisoning from bullets left in carcasses have hampered the recovery of the birds, which currently number 350. Over the past decade, the birds have been released at three sites around California and one in Arizona. Without parents in the wild to teach them safe behavior, some of the newly hatched birds have been caught and placed in breeding programs after repeatedly perching on power lines or coming too close to people.

The arrival announced Wednesday occurred after a male condor released in 2004 at Big Sur and a female released the same year at Pinnacles began exhibiting mating and nesting behavior last year. Condors generally mate for life.

So far, the new parents are adapting to life with child. George said they take turns nestling their offspring to keep it warm, just as they did the egg.

While one waits, the other forages for food. However, the potential that they could bring back bits of a carcass tainted with lead bullets is a threat to the survival of the youngster.

Of the 77 eggs laid in the wild since 2001, 33 lived for at least six months -- long enough to fly. If the newest one survives, its wings will grow from their current thumb size to a span of at least 9 1/2 feet.

The young condor will live with its parents for a year. The adults will wait two years before producing another egg.

"For first-time parents they're doing a good job," George said.

-- Associated Press

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Photo: A condor inspects its egg at Pinnacles National Monument. Credit: Gavin Emmons / National Park Service

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