Zoo's first condor chick of 2016 gets some help hatching

March 31, 2016 - 1:25pm

Rare California condor egg, laid on Jan. 28, hatched last weekend — twice

Remember this year's first California condor egg, laid on Jan. 28? It hatched on March 27 at the Oregon Zoo's Jonsson Center for Wildlife Conservation — slightly later than planned, and with a little bit of human help.

The chick had been developing just fine until March 18, when senior condor keeper Kelli Walker noticed something was amiss.

"Almost all movement in the egg had stopped," Walker said.

Usually, a condor chick begins its coming-out process after around 50 days, when the air cell — a pocket of oxygen in the egg that holds a chick's first breath — expands far enough to reach the beak. The chick still needs more air, so it lets some in by chiseling a small hole, or "pip," in the shell. Hatching continues as the chick takes in nutrients and blood from the rich yolk sac. It starts to move and rotate — cracking the shell and getting prepped to pop out — and hatches about 54 to 57 days after it was laid.

When Walker saw none of this was taking place, she slipped the pale-bluish egg out from under the parents, and swapped it for a wooden dummy egg. The zoo regularly uses these, keeping the real eggs safe in nearby incubators, where they're closely monitored and then placed beneath the parents once they're ready to hatch.

Walker had assisted in hatchings before, but never at this late of a stage. She called in zoo veterinarians, who pricked a makeshift pip in the egg so the chick could breathe. Usually, pip to hatch takes just two or three days. But following a week of incubation and anticipation, hopeful that the young condor would emerge on its own, Walker and a vet stepped in to help, easing the little bird out of its egg and into the world by carefully snipping open sections of the shell.

The chick spent one night in the center's intensive care unit to shut down its umbilicus completely. Then, on the morning of March 28, in what may seem a bizarre next step, they tucked the chick back into an eggshell.

"If we put the chick straight back under the parents with no egg, it's confusing for them," Walker explained. "So we have to pretend a little. We actually save shells from infertile eggs for this purpose."

Walker returned the re-encapsulated chick to the condor nest room, and within 15 minutes, the new parents — mom Timocho and dad Willie, who have raised six chicks together over the years — took the young survivor on.

"This chick is theirs to raise now," Walker said.

The chick is the genetic mix of a first-time breeding pair — condors No. 465 and No. 290 — but the biological parents will not be involved in raising it, since the father has never seen a chick before and might react badly.

"It's important for new parents to feel the vibrations and noise come from the chick starting to hatch below them," she said. "To experience the full hatching process firsthand."

The chick will be under the watchful wings of Timocho and Willie for at least eight months before moving to the Jonsson Center's pre-release pens for about a year and a half. Eventually, it will travel to a wild release site to join free-flying condors in California, Arizona or Baja Mexico.

Five more fertile eggs are still brewing at the zoo's Jonsson Center, with a sixth anticipated from one late-laying pair. Walker expects the second egg to hatch later this week, hopefully without assistance required.

The California condor was one of the original animals included on the 1973 Endangered Species Act and is classified as critically endangered. In 1982, only 22 individuals remained in the wild and by 1987, the last condors were taken into captivity in an attempt to save the species from extinction. Thanks to breeding programs like the Oregon Zoo's, the world's California condor population now totals more than 400 birds, most of which are flying free.

This week's chick is the 59th to hatch at the Jonsson Center since 2003, and 42 Oregon Zoo-reared birds have gone out to field pens for release. In addition, several eggs laid by Oregon Zoo condors have been placed in wild nests to hatch.

The Oregon Zoo's condor recovery efforts take place at the Jonsson Center for Wildlife Conservation, located in rural Clackamas County on Metro-owned open land. The remoteness of the facility minimizes the exposure of young condors to people, increasing the chances for captive-hatched birds to survive and breed in the wild. California condor breeding programs are also operated at San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park, the Los Angeles Zoo and the Peregrine Fund's World Center for Birds of Prey in Idaho.