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Breeding success.

THE YOUNG ANDEAN condor looked puzzled. The nylon net that had covered its home for the past three months was gone. Nothing now separated the bird from a freedom it had never known. After a few minutes, the condor hopped onto a wooden platform and spread its wings in anticipation. Then, as if driven by the inherited memory of countless generations, the condor hurled itself into the clear blue sky.

Unlike other captive-hatched Andean condors released into the wild in Peru in 1980, however, this South American bird was not soaring on South American winds. Instead, it launched its maiden flight from a hillside in the Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge in the Los Padres Mountains fifty miles northwest of Los Angeles, California. Nor did the young condor exactly soar. Rather, it flapped its wings a few times before landing among some large boulders maybe a hundred feet away.

Nevertheless, this and six other Andean condors made history. They were the first captive-hatched condors released to the wild in the United States, set free at a time when no free-ranging condors roamed North American skies. And it was the first time an exotic bird species had been introduced to the wild in the U.S. to help save an endangered native one.

The seven Andean condors released in California in 1988, plus another five freed in Colombia last year, are part of an unusual experiment designed to help wildlife biologists in the United States develop techniques for restoring the rare California condor to the wild. At the same time, the project will help Colombian biologists restock the dwindling Andean condor population in their country.

While most people probably find condors unappealing, these vultures are really quite impressive. With wingspans of 10 feet or more and weighing up to 25 pounds, Andean condors are the world's heaviest fully-flighted birds. Further, they have a beautiful mass of white fluffy feathers draped around their necks that contrasts sharply with their black and gray bodies. Andean males also have a caruncle, or fleshy comb, on their heads that distinguishes them from females and from California male condors. The closely-related California condor, slightly smaller than its Andean cousin, has white patches on the undersides of its wings that are clearly visible in flight. It also has a fluffy mass of black feathers around its neck.

Both Andean and California condors can soar for hours on their broad wings, often covering a hundred miles or more each day in search of food. Like other vultures, condors eat carrion. Their strong, curved beaks can easily tear chunks of flesh from a carcass.

Andean condors once ranged all along the Andes Mountains and Pacific coast of South America, from Venezuela to Tierra del Fuego. Although no one knows how many there are today, Andean condors are considered to be endangered by habitat destruction which has reduced their numbers to perhaps a few thousand in the wild. In Columbia and Venezuela, the northern part of their range, condors are now rare.

Whatever its population, the Andean condor is certainly in far better shape than the California condor. The latter once ranged across the continental United States. By the 19th century, however, it was found only along the western coast, from southern British Columbia in Canada to Baja California in Mexico. And by the 1940s, it was reduced to a horseshoe-shaped region north of Los Angeles.

Probably never very numerous, the California condor appeared destined for extinction. Its population dropped from an estimated 100 in 1940 to 50 to 60 by the 1960s and 25 to 30 by 1980. Fearing that despite conservation efforts the condor population would continue to fall, officials of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California wildlife agencies and other organizations decided to begin taking eggs and some young condors from the wild in 1981. The eggs and birds were brought to the San Diego Wild Animal Park and the Los Angeles Zoo, where scientists hoped to create a captive breeding colony.

Enter the Andean condor into the picture. Scientists had been breeding and raising the Andean birds at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland, as well as at several U.S. zoos, since the late 1960s. From the beginning, the idea was to test methods on the relatively common Andean condors to learn how to manage and breed California condors in captivity.

The plan succeeded. By 1980, more than 50 Andean condor eggs had been laid at Patuxent alone. Of those, 25 hatched and 20 chicks survived. "Whatever we tried with them seemed to work," recalls James Carpenter, a research veterinarian at Patuxent who then headed the center's endangered species program.

For the next step, 11 Andean condors hatched at Patuxent and the Bronx and Miami zoos were sent to be released into the wild in 1980 on the Sechura Peninsula, a hot, dry, hilly desert running along Peru's northern coast. The goal was to help restock Peru's wild population and to to test how different rearing methods affected the ability of captive-hatched condors to adjust to life in the wild.

Although four of the released Andean condors died in the first two years, the other seven birds not only survived, but thrived. By 1985, when the study ended, all were finding food, selecting roost sites and mingling freely with wild-hatched condors. "In fact, they were activing just like wild condors," says Michael Wallace, the study's field leader and now the curator of birds at the Los Angeles Zoo.

Meanwhile, back in the United States, keepers at the San Diego Wild Animal Park and the Los Angeles Zoo were fostering their own colonies of captive California condors. From the first California condor brought into captivity in 1967, the colony grew with the addition of four nestlings captured from 1981 to 1986, plus 13 chicks hatched at San Diego from eggs laid in the wild.

From the start, scientists and zoo keepers planned to use the progeny of those captive California condors to eventually restock the wild population. Towards that end, they planned to leave at least a dozen adults and other juveniles in the wild to serve as guides for captive-hatched condors when the latter were released into the wild. Studies of condors and other vultures had shown that young condors often find food by watching and following older condors and other avian scavengers.

But, before the zoo population had grown enough to begin releasing captive-hatched California condors to the Los Padres Mountains, disaster struck the wild birds. Four of the five remaining breeding pairs died inthe winter of 1985-86. Most of the birds simply disappeared, but autopsies of those found by scientists revealed evidence of lead poisoning, probably a result of feeding on carcasses left behind by hunters.

As a result, all remaining wild California condors were captured and brought to the San Diego Wild Animal Park and the Los Angeles Zoo. There they joined a thriving colony whose numbers have now reached 32 with the recent addition of the first chicks hatched in captivity -- one chick in 1988 and four in 1989.

"We now have five breeding pairs at the two zoos," says an enthusiastic David Rimlinger, bird manager at the San Diego Wild Animal Park. "If we can get them to produce two eggs each next year (as has been done with Andean condors at Patuxent and other zoos), we could conceivably get 10 more chicks."

Bright prospects, indeed, but a void still existed in the Los Padres Mountains. For the first time in eons, no condors soared among the tall peaks, deep canyons and chaparral-covered hills. Further, the void raised questions for scientists involved in the project. Most important, should the California condor project be kept alive if there were no wild condors to protect?

Once again, enter the Andean condor. Even before the last wild California condor was taken into captivity in 1987, Wallace had suggested to the California condor recovery team -- a group of federal, state and zoo wildlife biologists who oversee the program -- that they release captive-hatched Andean condors to the wild in California. "We had the opportunity to gain information that would increase the likelihood of success with the California condor," he recalls.

For one think, the hot, dry desert on Peru's Sechura Peninsula differs markedly from the Los Padres Mountains in California. Would the release techniques used in Peru work in an area often snow-covered in the winter and rainy in the spring? Would those techniques, developed for a sparsely inhabited area, work in another only an hour's drive from densely-populated Los Angeles?

In addition to answering these questions, the scientists needed to refine their methods for transporting, releasing, managing, feeding and following condors. "We need to know all the minute details of releasing condors to the wild in California," says James Wiley, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who heads the California condor recovery team.

First, though, any release of Andean condors in California had to be carefully planned. The entire condor research and breeding program has long been marked by controvery. Many conservationists and even some scientists had long opposed any interference with the wild birds, arguing the condors should be allowed to become extinct rather than be brought into captivity. Such views did not prevail, but they were reinforced in 1980 when a wild nestling being examined by scientists died.

To help allay opposition and to ensure that the Andean condors would not establish themselves in the United States, Wallace proposed releasing only females, feeding the birds at specific sites for easy recapture later and setting a definite two to three year time limit for the study.

In the end, eight Andean condors hatched in captivity in 1988 were slated for release in California. The young birds, not yet fully-fledged, arrived at two different release sites in August and October. They were housed in large outdoor cages that allowed plenty of room for short practice flights and for getting used to their new surroundings.

The Andean condors were released from their cages and allowed to fly freely in December 1988 and January 1989. Even before the release, however, there were problems. One bird died while being taken to the release site in August. After the release, a second never quite adjusted to her new-found freedom, rarely flying or leaving the site. She was recaptured a month later and brought to the Los Angeles Zoo. A third condor died in February when it flew into a power line. And yet a fourth had to be recaptured when she started associating too closely with people.

Still, Wallace and Wiley both say the four remaining Andean condors released are doing fine. "They are taking the same flying routes and choosing the same roosting sites as the California condors had been observed using," Wiley reports. "They are doing exactly what we had hoped they would. They are acting just like condors."

The scientists plan to release another six captive-hatched Andean condors to the wild in California this winter, then to monitor all the birds for at least another year or two. Some of the Andeans may be left in the wild after the others are recaptured at the end of the study to serve as food guides when captive-hatched California condors are released, probably not until at least 1993.

Originally, the plan called for the recaptured Andean condors to be returned to Patuxent and other zoos participating in the program to rejoin their male counterparts. But, Mike Wallace had a different idea. Since only female Andean condors would be released in California, he suggested sending the males hatched in 1988 to Peru to join those released in Sechura in 1980.

But the Peruvian scientist who had worked with Wallace at Sechura had died, and efforts to arrange another release there or elsewhere in Peru went nowhere. So Wallace turned for help to Alan Lieberman, curator of birds at the San Diego Zoo. Lieberman had previously worked in Colombia and had long wanted to send U.S.-hatched Andean condors to Colombian zoos to help conservation education programs in that country. A proposal to release birds to the wild in Colombia was quickly accepted by the California condor recovery team and by officials of INDERNA, the Colombian natural resources agency.

Before any Andean condors were sent to Colombia, however, Lieberman arranged for Colombian biologists Jorge Morales, Enrique Zerda and Guillermo Cantillo to join the condor project in California so they could learn to apply its methods in their country. The three Colombians spent January 1989 with the released Andean condors and at the San Diego and Los Angeles zoos.

Next, various U.S.-led teams of wildlife biologists helped the Colombians prepare for releasing Andean condors in South America. First, Wallace came to Colombia in April 1989 to help check out the release sites. Then came Lieberman and David Clendenen, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, to help the Colombians build facilities at the release site. Finally, a week after the birds themselves arrived in May, Wiley brought radio collars and other monitoring equipment.

Five male Andean condors were released on June 7, 1989 at a 1,300-foot high site on El Cerro Leticia in Colombia's Chingaza National Park, a three-hour drive east of Bogota. Chingaza is very different from either Sechura Peninsula in Peru or California's Los Padres Mountains. It is very rainy and chilly, with no trees except for a few scrub-like dwarfs. High winds and dense fog often make following the birds difficult. And there are no other condors at the release site for the captive-hatched birds to follow.

Despite those problems, the released Andean condors are doing fine, says Juan Manuel Paez, a Colombian wildlife biologist who heads the local field team. Although Paez and his colleagues at first had to occasionally go out and bring the birds back to the release site for feeding, all are now returning regularly for food on their own. In the future, Paez says he hopes to entice the condors further down the mountain to areas where there are other avian scavengers for them to follow.

If all goes well, Lieberman plans to send another nine captive-hatched male Andean condors to Colombia in 1990. Rather than to Chingaza, however, they will go to La Planada in the Cumbral Valley in southern Colombia. This release will be coordinated by Jorge Orejuela of Colombia's Fundacion de la Educacion Superior, a private conservation group. Later, when the female Andean condors in California are recaptured, they too will be sent to Colombia to join the males already released into the wild.

For now, all released Andean condors in California and Colombia are considered test birds, the Los Angeles Zoo's Wallace says. That means they could be lost without affecting the project of the condor's future. But, if the experiment works, these birds from South America will have helped pave the way for California condors to once again soar over the Los Padres Mountains near Los Angeles.

That prospect, and the role that South American birds will have had in it, excites scientists like the San Diego Zoo's Lieberman. "We are borrowing from South America's natural heritage to help rescue our own," he says. And to help preserve South America's, too.

Jeffrey P. Cohn, a free-lance journalist specializing in science and technology, frequently writes on wildlife and conservation issues.
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Title Annotation:Andean condor in California
Author:Cohn, Jeffrey P.
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Jan 1, 1990
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