It's a bird's life for the 6-day-old California condor chick at the San Diego Wild Animal Park.
Food looks appetizing enough for the formerly floppy Molloko to stand and reach out for it, keepers say. And Mom finally made an appearance Wednesday, in the form of a puppet that will keep the chick from developing an unhealthy attachment to its human caretakers.
The puppet is being used to feed the chick as well as to nibble at its neck and back, in imitation of the natural behavior a condor parent would give, said Tom Hanscom, park spokesman.
"We are at the point when the chick is making note of its caretaker, and we want that caretaker image to be an adult condor," Hanscom said. Earlier, the chick couldn't see well enough for human contact to matter, he said.
The chick weighed in at 9.45 ounces Wednesday, almost 2 ounces heavier than when hatched on Friday, so its daily diet of about 30 minced baby mice seems to be agreeing with it. Today, the diet will be expanded to a baby condor's ultimate lunch, partly digested food regurgitated by another vulture, Hanscom said.
The technique capitalizes on what keepers have learned about vultures over the years. If allowed to, they gorge because so much time can go by between meals in the wild. But, threatened, they rid themselves of the extra food to make flying away easier.
Keepers will allow the turkey vulture to gorge, then wave a net at it a few hours later to obtain food for the baby, Hanscom said. With only 28 condors, including Molloko, known to be in existence, condors themselves are too rare to use for that feeding ritual, he added.
With help from keepers, Molloko hatched Friday to become the only California condor chick to be conceived and hatched in captivity. That marked a milestone for a federal, state and private effort to breed the animals in San Diego and at the Los Angeles Zoo, then reintroduce them to California skies, possibly as early as 1992.