CURWOOD: Two decades ago California's condors teetered on the brink of extinction. And to try to save the birds, researchers took a drastic and controversial step. They captured the last 27 condors and set up a breeding program. A few years ago they started releasing juveniles bred in captivity back into the wild. The work now seems to be paying off. Researchers have discovered that at least one released condor has laid an egg. Biologist Sophie Osborn with the Peregrine Fund recently spotted the egg as she pointed her telescope into a cave near the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
OSBORN: I saw what looked like an egg. The adult male was pushing it around with his bill and there, all of a sudden, in this cave entrance was this beautiful, elliptical-shaped object. But as a biologist you always try to be cautious and not jump to conclusions. I kept observing and observing, and a little white later one of the females came up to the egg. And when she was moving it around she actually lifted it up and I could see that it was a hollowed-out egg.
CURWOOD: How did you feel when you discovered this egg?
OSBORN: I was absolutely stunned and almost shaky inside, and sort of overwhelmed by the potential enormity of what I was seeing.
CURWOOD: You observed this egg in a cliffside cave. Why did you pick this location in the first place?
OSBORN: We're following 25 condors around and we basically go where the birds go. These three birds had been investigating this cave, going in and out of it and starting to spend significant time inside it. So it was because the birds were there, we were there. And I just happened to be watching this cave closely with my spotting scope trained at the entrance.
CURWOOD: And you said that one of the females moved the egg around, and it appeared to be hollowed out.
CURWOOD: So it doesn't seem like there's going to be any condor chicks to come out of that one.
OSBORN: No, I'm afraid not. But that's pretty normal for their first year. Oftentimes, the first time they lay an egg they either end up breaking it or not caring for it properly. Sometimes the first egg is infertile. The amazing thing was that they've actually started this, and they are able to lay an egg and have done so. And that was just an incredible first step for them.
CURWOOD: Now, how big is a condor egg? I'm thinking the condor's pretty big. The wings are stretched out, what? It's almost ten feet across.
OSBORN: Right, nine-and-a-half-feet wing span. Well, I have never seen a condor egg close-up, and I think that potentially I thought it was absolutely huge, but that could be just because it made such a huge impression on me. I think they're probably about five inches long, I'm guessing.
CURWOOD: What are the chances of these birds or the other condors in the wild there laying more eggs this year?
OSBORN: It's very possible this year, actually, because we have two females that this male has been courting. So it's quite possible that the second female might also lay an egg.
CURWOOD: Well, who laid the first egg, do you think?
OSBORN: We think it was the first female, which was condor 119. We have a bit of an unusual situation. Condors obviously usually pair off, but we've had sort of a trio at the moment, one male and two females. And although the male has been primarily courting and displaying to one female, female 119, who we assume, are thinking that laid the egg, there is this other female involved. And that may be just because there are so few males out there for these females to choose from.
CURWOOD: Sounds to me like a classic triangle.
OSBORN: (Laughs) It does. It's definitely an evolving story. We have a web site where we write up what's happening with the condors, and my sister was reading it lately, and she said that it sounded like a romance novel or something with these three birds trying to figure it out. (Curwood laughs) So it can be pretty entertaining.
CURWOOD: And this guy who's responsible for this egg, what kind of personality does he have?
OSBORN: (Laughs) He's very dominant. He's very majestic and very pushy. When he lands at a carcass, you know, everyone steps back and he gets right in there. But like all the condors he can be curious and playful. If somebody's playing with something he'll charge right on in to take over the game.
CURWOOD: How social are these condors?
OSBORN: They're incredible gregarious. They definitely travel together in groups and spend a lot of time together. They're incredibly clever, curious birds. The other day I watched 11 condors playing on a beach, and they were playing with sticks. And then one discovered a plastic bottle and they were pushing it around and jumping around over it. Sometimes you'll see them at a carcass and one bird will walk up to the other one and grab its tail and pull it off. (Curwood laughs) They just are endlessly entertaining to us.
CURWOOD: Now, how many California condors are there in the wild right now?
OSBORN: There are 49 in the wild at the moment. We have 25 in Arizona and 24 in California.
CURWOOD: I've heard about a number of setbacks in the California condor release program. Some of the birds had to be recaptured because they just, I guess, were too used to people. And some have been, what? Attacked by coyotes. They run into power lines or the wrong end of a bullet.
OSBORN: Right. The biggest problem for them really has been lead poisoning. They're scavengers, obviously. They eat only dead things. And they several times have come across carcasses that were loaded with lead shot. Last summer we lost five of them here in Arizona to lead poisoning, and at least ten others had to be treated for lead poisoning.
CURWOOD: What's your feeling about the likelihood of re-establishing a self-sustaining population of these birds in the wild?
OSBORN: I think it's really good. And I think that seeing this egg has given us all, you know, more than a glimmer of hope that it can be successful. It's the long haul, simply because these birds reproduce very slowly. They don't mature and begin reproducing until they're six years old. So, we know we finally have six-year-olds in the wild and that's why we're so excited to start seeing this nesting behavior.
CURWOOD: Sophie Osborn is a field biologist and condor egg discoverer with the Peregrine Fund in northern Arizona. Thanks for joining us today.
OSBORN: Thank you for having me.
Link to Sophie Osborn's field notes at the Peregrine Fund website.
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CURWOOD: To read Sophie Osborn's first-hand account of her condor egg find, as well as her other dispatches from the field, see the link on our web site at www.loe.org. Just ahead: From Florida to the Philippines it's hard times for trash. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
Now this environmental business update with Anna Solomon-Greenbaum.
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