LOS ANGELES — The first California condor chick to hatch in the wild in 17 years has died, the apparent victim of confusion between two mothers that had laid their eggs in the same nest.
Biologists believe that the 2 -day-old chick died after the female bird caring for it left to feed. When the other female arrived, expecting to see her egg, she may have mistaken the chick for an intruder and killed it sometime Sunday or Monday.
“It’s not a sad chapter, it’s a sad sentence,” said John Brooks, information education specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “It’s a sad sentence that has some positive twists to it.”
The chick came from an egg laid at the Los Angeles Zoo. Biologists moved it to a nest in Los Padres National Forest in Santa Barbara County, where it became the adoptive child of a most unconventional condor family.
Two females there had been displaying courtship behavior with the same male and each laid an egg in the same nest. They were the first intact condor eggs found in the wild since the mid-1980s, when the species nearly disappeared and captive breeding programs began.
However, the situation clearly confused the birds. Biologists said neither egg was getting the care it needed.
One egg died and the other was in danger of dying of exposure when biologists decided to remove both eggs and eventually replace them with the egg laid at the zoo to give the first-time parents child-rearing experience.
“Everyone knew it was a risk,” Brooks said. “But if we gained something out of it, it would be worth it.”
A biologist removed the eggs June 1 and first replaced them with a single ceramic fake.
The surviving wild egg was taken to the Los Angeles Zoo, where it hatched June 17. The chick has been accepted by a pair of captive-bred condors and is doing well, Brooks said.
On June 18, biologists returned to the nest in the wild and swapped the fake egg with the captive-bred egg. The replacement egg hatched Friday with the help of its foster mother.
No one had been watching the nest for about a day when Fish and Wildlife biologist Mike Barth made the 2.5-hour hike to the nest site Monday afternoon. When Barth reached the cliff-face nest, he found no sign of the chick or any adult condors. Below the nest he found the chick’s body with two deep gashes resembling condor bites on its head and neck.
A necropsy will be conducted on the body at the San Diego Zoo to confirm the cause of death, Brooks said.
“In nature things like this happen – especially in first-time breeding situations,” Brooks said.
After falling to a wild population of just nine in 1984, condors are coming back through captive breeding that has boosted their population to 190.
Scientists began reintroducing condors to the wild in 1992, and now about 35 birds live in two areas of California. Another 25 soar over the Grand Canyon in Arizona.