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Condor 'Preschool' Teaches Fear : Wildlife: Biologists are trying new tactic of letting chicks be raised by parents for a few months, then transporting them to a facility where they learn to fear humans.

August 17, 1995|JOANNA M. MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Early Wednesday morning, Los Angeles zookeeper Mike Clark crept silently into a nesting box where a downy California condor chick was born three months ago, covered the struggling baby vulture and carried it off.

The bird's mother, a wild bird that was captured in 1985 soon after the zoo's captive breeding program first began, hissed and nervously hopped around the cage in protest as her only chick in 10 years of captivity was spirited away.

The baby condor, still fluffy with down and not yet able to fly, was placed into a kennel carrier and driven in the back of a truck up a bumpy dusty road to the Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge in Ventura County, where federal biologists hope to teach the endangered species to fear humans.

There, high on a golden hill, where the rustle of a nearby creek and the crackle of dry leaves underfoot are the loudest sounds, the chick was placed in a small simulated cave about the size of a large doghouse with a fenced outdoor patio area. Pieces of horse meat and skinned rats were laid out on the dirt before the young bird, whose gender is not yet known.

But the bird, more used to the regurgitated meat its mother provided, and upset by the move, huddled inside the dark cave for most of the day.

"I doubt that he'll eat much today," Clark said. "It's his first time away from his parents. It's been a pretty rough day."

The chick joined two slightly older birds, which were transferred last month to the rugged mountains next to the Sespe Condor Sanctuary--where the first captive-bred condors were released in 1992.

The three will be the first to participate in a type of preschool to teach them to stay in the hills and away from civilization. Biologists hope that by removing them early from the zoo, where they are exposed to the sounds of heavy equipment and human voices, they will be less accustomed to civilization and therefore less curious about it.

Five of the endangered vultures died after being released to the wild, three in collisions with power lines and two after eating man-made toxins. Another young bird grew ill last week when campers fed it hot dogs and popcorn.

"People say the birds are really stupid," said Marguerite Hills, deputy project leader for the Condor Recovery Program of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "But these birds were around the same time as the mastodons. How can they be stupid if they survived longer than almost any animal on Earth?"

Biologists plan to train each bird to avoid humans through what is known as aversion therapy.

First they will let the chick loose in a large flight pen and move a person into the line of sight. Just as the bird sees the person, a group of biologists will rush the bird and turn it upside down.

Such hazing presumably will rattle the bird enough that it will dislike humans. The 30-by-50-foot flight pen will include a mock power wire, which will give the chicks a mild shock if they perch on it.

The chicks at the preschool program are also the first zoo-bred condors to be raised in part by their parents.

A fourth chick, which will be transferred in September to Hopper, north of Fillmore, was born and reared by its parents at the San Diego Zoo.

Up until now, biologists at the breeding facilities have removed the eggs from the nests well before they hatched. The idea was to encourage the adults to breed again right away, rather than wait until a chick was hatched and reared.

But with the condor population in the captive breeding program now recovered from a low of 22 to today's 104--including three at Hopper Mountain, five in the wild, and the remaining birds in breeding facilities at Los Angeles and San Diego zoos and Boise, Ida.--biologists have the luxury of trying out new theories.

They now believe that in the first three months, the chicks can learn from their parents some basic skills that may help them survive in the wild.

"Now that we have a good number of birds, we're looking more for quality birds and not as much for quantity," Hills said.

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