SAN DIEGO — Deep in the mountainous forest of Baja California, fledgling condors 225, 269, 279 and 284 are spending their first days under the stern but crucial tutelage of Xewe, a matriarch of the California Condor Recovery Program.
And if all goes well, the four birds will be released early next year into the wilds of Sierra de San Pedro Martir National Park.
Xewe will then await the arrival of another batch of condors, hatched in captivity and in need of her help in honing their survivability skills.
It's the latest wrinkle in the decades-long attempt to revive a species once on the brink of extinction.
Baja is the latest area where condors are being released in hopes that the species will become self-sustaining. The birds have been hatched and nurtured at the Los Angeles Zoo, the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park and a center in Boise, Idaho.
On Thursday, the birds were packed gently into crates at the Los Angeles Zoo for a flight aboard two private planes from Burbank to Tijuana. The birds and their keepers were met in Tijuana by condor team members from the San Diego Zoo for the long drive to the condor station at the national park.
The release of these four birds will be the third of its kind in Baja. The first release, 13 months ago, did not go entirely as hoped. The young condors were flummoxed by their freedom and were scorned and attacked by other birds, particularly golden eagles and ravens.
"It's as if they had a sign on their backs: 'Kick me,' " said Mike Wallace, wildlife specialist for the San Diego Zoological Society and recovery team leader for the condor program. "They're huge, clumsy targets. Even the turkey vultures picked on them." Two of the condors had to be trapped in the spring so they could receive remedial training before being rereleased in August.
Condor experts are banking on several months in a spacious enclosure with Xewe to equip 225, 269, 279 and 284 for their impending liberation. Xewe (which means "to cast a shadow" in the Chumash language) is a tough bird.
She was one of the first condors released into the wild. She had trouble and was recaptured. But in ways that bird experts do not fully understand, she can relay her knowledge to the young.
"She is the dominant bird and they will have to treat her with respect," said Susie Kasielke, curator of birds at the Los Angeles Zoo. "In turn, she is the mentor they need." Twelve-year-old Xewe is given high marks for her influence on the last batch of condors to be released. "She really straightened out their behavior," Wallace said.
The long-range goal is to have the condor population in Baja California merge with that in California to make one big blended family.
Condors have been successfully released in the Ventana Wilderness Sanctuary in Big Sur, the Los Padres National Forest north of Los Angeles and the Grand Canyon in Arizona. There are now 84 condors in the wild, including five in Baja; the goal is to have 300 in the wild, with at least 15 breeding pairs.
The Sierra de San Pedro Martir National Park, at an elevation of 6,000 to 9,000 feet, was once prime condor country: Covered with old-growth pine, fir, hemlock and spruce, it is snowy in the winter, but warm in the summer.
As late as the mid-1930s the majestic gliding birds were frequently spotted in Baja. The condor station is a cooperative venture involving the San Diego and Los Angeles zoos, the U.S. government and Mexico's Instituto Nacional de Ecologia.
The Baja release is also an opportunity to test a new theory in condor rearing that keeps the fledglings as isolated as possible from humans. The four new arrivals, born three years ago, have rarely, if ever, seen a human.
"What we're trying to do is to make them as close to wild condors as possible," Kasielke said.
Of course, there are limits to how much humans can teach condors about being condors.