Passion for condors begets passionate condors*

High on a hill in North San Diego County, low-slung trailers and a mysterious prison-ish facility overlook the San Diego Safari Park. The predominant sound is the crunch of pebbles underfoot as the few humans allowed here move wordlessly among the buildings of the condor compound. It's breeding season, and with three newly hatched eggs reposing in incubators, the scientists and keepers responsible for saving a precipitously endangered population hope for more. They also hope to release many of their charges into the wild, and they know that any sound the birds associate with humans can compromise their ability one day to survive in their natural habitat.

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Condor exhibit with juvenile, lower left, and mature birds.

Breeding pens are screened from view by high concrete walls, and netting spans the avian hook-up haven. Except for quick maintenance, and egg removal and replacement, no one, not even keepers, is allowed inside the "condorminium" where pairs of birds are courting, laying eggs, helping chicks hatch and, ideally, nurturing them into adults who, god and humans willing, can live to be 60.

The condor reclamation project is only one preservation effort undertaken by the Safari Park and its sister institution, the San Diego Zoo, but it's probably the sexiest, and maybe the most successful. Michael Mace, the park's curator of birds, was asked: How many condors do we think are in the wild?

"We know there are 230," he replied emphatically, "and 412 in the world. In 1982, there were 22 known to exist."

That year also marked the first condor preservation effort, the California Condor Recovery Program sponsored by San Diego Zoo Global, an international conservation organization of the Zoo/Safari Park. Its researchers are the architects of the condor science required to save them from the ignorance and self-involvement of humans.

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Incubating condor egg.

The first eggs this season were laid about a week ago, but by spring, there could be as many as 10 or 12, and their heritage is carefully planned. Condors mate for life, but the park's enablers, keen to maximize population growth and sustainability, pair and re-pair birds according to the genetic values they seek during any single season. So the scientists are both matchmakers and divorce attorneys.

Or, as Mace preferred to describe the fluid process, "It's a complex eHarmony arrangement."

The point is to release as many bird as possible to specific sites in Baja, the Sespe sanctuary in Ventura County, Ventana Wilderness in Big Sur, Pinnacles National Park and the Vermilion Cliffs near the Grand Canyon. But not every one is a candidate for freedom. Some are strictly breeding stock, either because they're overexposed to humans, or because they're too genetically valuable to risk losing. All release stock are born and raised here, then moved to release centers for further survival skill training.

So far, 181 condors hatched at the Safari Park are soaring free.

From the mid-1980s, when there were fewer than 30 birds, until a couple of years ago, researchers would double and triple clutch the pairs -- that is, they would remove a newly laid egg and leave the nest bare in the hope the pair would rekindle the procreation flame.

Because mom and dad, both of whom are active parents, would be occupied making babies, the older chicks would be raised by hand; hidden by screens so they wouldn't imprint on the birds, humans would manipulate puppets to mimic parental behavior.

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Lead condor keeper Kristina Heston with training hand puppet.

A single clutch per season is most common now that the population is larger -- as with humans, the preference is for the parents to raise their own young.

Each nest is monitored from a trailer via web cam. When an egg is laid, keepers remove it to the incubation trailer, and replace it with a dummy egg so that the birds retain their parental programming. When an incubating egg shows signs of pipping -- the chick begins to pierce the egg, generally after 56 days -- it's moved back to the nest, where the parents help in the hatching. Such natal assistance is rare in the bird world.

After about 72 hours, the chick fully hatches.

Although you can't watch the breeders and their babes in person, you can see them in real time on the park's condor cam. Saticoy, the first bird to star in the web reality show, was released into the wild about a month ago.

All condor chicks are treated as release candidates, even if they end up as breeding stock. The only time the birds see their keepers is for medical procedures, affixing wingtags and radio transmitters or pre-shipment examinations. Food is provided through a chute in the wall.

It takes five or six months of parental doting for a chick to fledge, after which release candidates are removed to the training center farther up the hill from the corrupting influence of humans. It's where the youngsters learn, as Mace puts it, "condor etiquette" -- things like how to share a carcass in the wild (like all vultures, condors are carrion eaters).

Humans unseen by the birds and resident condor mentors help them develop their flying muscles and serve as "howdy" teachers -- recognition of their fellows. They're also given power pole aversion training.

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Shhhh ... big birds breeding.

The breeding/training process is dynamic, and began in 1981 when the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service asked the San Diego Zoo/Safari Park and the Los Angeles Zoo to develop a program for saving California condors. As Mace explained, "Everything we did had never been done before. We literally were writing the book on condors."

It wasn't only the science that was challenging -- successful bird husbandry was fraught with political pressure. The zoological parks had to bring all the known birds into captivity, prompting accusations that they were housing them onsite purely for profit. To prove otherwise, until a couple of years ago, the park had no public live condor exhibit. Today, several that will never be released are on view, just up the path from the bald eagle exhibit.

There were also threats of liberating the captives, which is why the compound walls feature razor wire.

And because removing the birds from their protected habitat rendered it vulnerable to development, or at least human incursion, in 1992 the California birds were supplanted in those areas by their cousins, the also-endangered Andean Condors. Their presence reserved the real estate and kept it environmentally suitable for eventual native condor release.

The condor population is growing, slowly, but it remains seriously endangered, and there's no shortage of threats researchers must anticipate and respond to. Although, thanks to the aversion training, power poles aren't the hazard they used to be, poisoning from eating carrion shot with lead ammo, unexpected disease and the growth of wind power are particularly daunting.

Mace was clear that protecting condors does not require bashing hunters; it requires education. "It's not about hunting, it's about a toxin in the environment," he said. He calls lead the biggest threat today, and compares its elimination from the wild with its elimination decades ago from paint and gasoline because it harmed humans. Lead shot isn't bad only for animals, it's bad for people who might eat those felled by lead shot.

Condors in the wild are tracked via biotelemetry (radio), and those found suffering from lead poisoning are recaptured for chelation therapy. It can take days to weeks for a bird to recover.

A previously unknown threat to condors, West Nile virus presented in 1999. Five or six condors died before researchers developed a vaccine. "We haven't developed a human vaccine for West Nile virus," Mace noted, "but we have one for animals." It requires an annual booster shot, so all the free-range birds must be recaptured at regular intervals.

Perhaps the thorniest potential challenge to condor continuity is wind farms, whose turbines have turned plenty of raptors into rubble.

So far, no vultures have been chewed up and spit out by these providers of clean energy, but scientists want to prevent such accidents, so they're researching "spatial ecology," or why condors in flight behave as they do. That helps conservationists advise utility companies on site selection. They also hope to develop a detection system so that the companies can slow or stop the turbines when condors are cruising the 'hood.

Energy companies, Mace said, welcome this information, because it helps them protect endangered species. And their profits: If their machine kills a condor, they can be fined.

With their 9-foot wingspans, condors are majestic in flight. At the park's condor exhibit, you stare at them, perched and placid, study their naked heads, beady eyes and poor posture. As Mace put it, "They are large vultures with a lot of character." As others put it, they're butt-ugly. Honey, you're a boo-boo, and if destiny were a beauty contest, you'd be dancing with the dodo.

Thanks to the good work of people who know that beauty wears all kinds of feathers, they're not; they're living among their fellow Californians, who should be happy to have them decorating the wilderness sky.

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Michael Mace, curator of birds, with condor primary wing feather.

Photos by Ellen Alperstein

* Corrected spelling of condor keeper's name

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