Biologists believe condor chick lives

California condors have come a long way at Grand Canyon since the inception of the recovery program. (Photo by Chrisie Van Cleve/The Peregrine Fun)

Wildlife officials have been hoping for weeks to find definitive evidence that a condor chick is alive, but the Salt Creek cave nest is extremely remote.

“There has been no visual of a nestling to our knowledge,” said Jack Cafferty of the Peregrine Fund. “The bottom line is we’re 90 percent sure there is a nestling, but we won’t know for sure until there is a visual.”

The Peregrine Fund’s Sophie Osborne, who writes “Notes from the Field” items for the organization’s Web site, believes a chick exists.

“Although we have yet to get a visual confirmation of a condor chick in the Salt Creek nest cave, condors 123 and 127 continue to give us every indication that they do in fact have a nestling,” Osborne said. “The pair has been switching nest duty on at least a daily basis and sometimes multiple times a day. Whenever they feed, the adults immediately return to the nest. We would not expect such behavior if the pair were still incubating an infertile egg.”

Osborne estimated the chick’s age at around eight weeks and said it should be ready to fledge in late October.

“Condors 123 and 127 are beginning to spend more time away from the nest cave, which we would expect them to do if they have a nearly-2-month-old chick,” Osborne said. “At this age, the chick would not need to be kept warm by the adults and its growing appetite would force the parents to spend more and more time away searching for food.”

Osborne said condors 123 and 127 have been seen feeding on mule deer and mules inside Grand Canyon National Park and, in recent weeks, have each returned to the release site several times to feed on dairy calves.

Officials have various health concerns for condors, including lead poisoning, feeding on trash and the West Nile virus. A condor recovery team retrieved egg fragments and feathers from the Battleship formation cave, where a hatching failed. Testing revealed high lead content.

In the past few weeks, biologists have been capturing condors as part of semi-annual population trapping.

“So far we have caught 26 of the 35 condors,” Arizona Game and Fish biologist Andi Rogers said last week. “Our goal in catching all the birds is to inoculate them with the West Nile virus vaccination, take a blood sample and replace defunct transmitters.”

Now that the chick has been hatched, the next big test will be during the weeks prior to taking flight.

“If, as we suspect, the chick has made it past the ultimately challenging hatching stage, the next biggest challenge will come in the month or two prior to fledging,” she said. “At this age, the chick requires tremendous amounts of energy to grow its flight and body feathers and prepare itself for flight. Meeting a growing chick’s nutritional needs can be extremely challenging for first-time condor parents.”

Despite those challenges and the other concerns, wildlife biologists are hopeful there will be a youngster gracing Grand Canyon’s skies this fall.

“We are finding it nearly impossible not to get our hopes up that somehow Arizona’s first chick will launch itself out over the Grand Canyon this coming fall,” Osborne said.

If the chick did survive, it was the first born in Arizona in nearly 100 years.

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