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‘Surrogate’ Andean Condors Await Test Release

November 23, 1988

SESPE CONDOR SANCTUARY, Calif. (AP) _ Perched in cages in brush-covered mountains, six Andean condors munch on beef and chopped rats as they await release into the wild for an experiment aimed at saving their California condor cousins from extinction.

″It will be a credit to humankind if we can preserve the animals of the Earth, and the condor is but one animal facing dire straits,″ said Jeff Opdycke, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official who toured the Andean condor release site with reporters Tuesday.

Of thousands of California condors that once soared in the early 1800s, only 28 of the vulture-like, carrion-eating birds remain alive. With 9 1/2 -foot wingspans, they are North America’s largest bird.

All the survivors are in captive breeding programs at the Los Angeles Zoo and San Diego Wild Animal Park.

In five to 10 years, after enough of them have reproduced in captivity, some of the young birds will be re-introduced into the wild to make another attempt to avoid extinction.

To learn the best way to release the California condors and assure their survival, researchers are using young Andean condors donated by various zoos as stand-ins for their more endangered relatives. Between 1,000 and 2,000 Andean condors remain in the wilds of South America.

″These are surrogates,″ said Joseph Dowhan, condor recovery coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service. ″We’re going to test release techniques, release sites, and train people.″

Seven of the Andean birds will be freed in December and January into the 53,000-acre Sespe Condor Sanctuary, 50 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.

Along with up to 10 others to be freed late next year, they will be rounded up when the $440,000 study is done in two or three years, then released permanently in their native Colombia.

So far, the attempts to save the condors has cost about $20 million.

About a dozen reporters were allowed to observe three of the birds on Tuesday in a tour led by officials of the Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, National Audubon Society, and Los Angeles Zoo.

The three young female condors, all about 5 months old and weighing 19 to 21 pounds, sat in the shade, napping in the net-enclosed half of their 35-by- 16-foot roosting box, which sits atop sawed-off telephone poles 10 feet above the ground to protect them from hungry black bears and coyotes.

Viewed from a blind about 100 yards above the cage, the condors look like balls of down, since their wing feathers aren’t yet fully developed.

Biologists sneak into the covered portion of the cage at night to deliver meals of calf meat, ground horse meat and chopped rats, said Mike Wallace, the Los Angeles Zoo’s curator of birds.

″Once or twice a week, we go to dairies and pick up stillborn calves,″ Wallace said, explaining the source of the birds’ beef supply.

The condors displayed Tuesday will be released in January, along with a fourth bird that had not yet arrived.

Scientists hope that once released, the birds will stay in the sanctuary and away from areas where wild California condors died from what officials believe was lead poisoning.

While development along California’s coast and San Joaquin Valley gradually destroyed much condor habitat, scientists believe the birds died after they ate coyotes or deer that had been shot by hunters. Wallace said other condors probably were shot, and some may have been killed by power lines.

All of the Andean birds that will be released are females. That’s because a presidential order prohibits introducing exotic species into the United States. By freeing only females equipped with tiny radio transmitters and later rounding them up, officials believe they are complying, Dowhan said.

Biologists will keep feeding the birds once they are free, since the experiment is not designed to teach them to seek their own food. Instead, it is meant to determine if the freed birds will remain in the sanctuary and nearby wilderness of the Los Padres National Forest.

So far, only one California condor chick has been hatched in captivity, 7- month-old Moloko, who lives at the San Diego Wild Animal Park. Dowhan hopes one to five more chicks will hatch next year.

Four of the last five wild breeding pairs of California condors vanished in 1984-85. In 1986, the Fish and Wildlife Service made a controversial decision to round up the last six wild birds to prevent their demise.

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