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2nd Condor Chick Hatched in Wild Dies

Lead could be cause of death. Just one of three birds from new generation of repopulation program survives.

October 18, 2002|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

For the second time this month, a California condor chick hatched in the wild was found dead in a cave deep in Los Padres National Forest.

The cause of death is unknown, but biologists said the bird's mother had elevated lead levels in her blood and both parents often foraged for food, putting them at risk for lead poisoning that could be passed on to the chick.

The death leaves just one chick of the original three left in the wild, dampening hopes for a new generation of condors born outside zoos.

The deaths "are two independent events that may have similar or different causes," said Bruce Palmer, coordinator of the $35-million condor project for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The latest fatality was discovered Tuesday after Allan Mee, a biologist watching the cave in the Sespe Condor Refuge, lost sight of the turkey-sized chick inside.

"At first I didn't see any signs of the chick and thought it had possibly [flown off]," Mee said of the 5-month-old bird. "But when the father pulled the chick out of the shadows of the cave, I realized it was dead."

A U.S. Forest Service helicopter tried to reach the site Wednesday but turned back because of fog. On Thursday, biologists were trying to rappel down a sheer cliff face to grab the dead chick, which will be sent to the San Diego Zoo for a necropsy.

Two weeks ago, the first condor in 18 years to brood and hatch in the wild was found dead on a ledge just below its sandstone cave. Its father, which had gone foraging, is missing and presumed dead.

That chick's hatching last April was hailed as validation of the controversial captive breeding program that had boosted the condor population from 15 to almost 200 over the last 20 years.

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