Scientists were happily surprised to learn that two California condors, an endangered species trying to make a comeback, secretly mated, the fruits of their romance making a newborn chick.
"As biologists, we strive to know everything about the flock, but when we get a curve ball like this it's a real pleasant surprise," Joe Burnett, the senior wildlife biologist and Big Sur condor project coordinator for the Ventana Wildlife Society, told the San Francisco Chronicle. "It's just a sign of how well the flock is doing - that they are flying out on their own, making nests and breeding on their own."
The 9-month-old bird is the lovechild of the breeding pair known as "Shadow" and "Wild 1," who apparently snuck off to a remote portion of the Santa Lucia Mountains where they evaded detection by scientists. Their newborn is also already full-grown, meaning they successfully mated, produced an egg and incubated it for 60 days, and then raised the hatchling for six months, all before biologists caught wind of their budding romance.
It's only the third successful condor pairing since the species' rehabilitation and reintroduction to the wild in 1997.
California condors, the largest flying bird in North America, were on the verge of extinction in the late 1970s after decades of decline, according to National Geographic. Scientists aren't exactly sure what contributed to their die-off, but they suspect poison ingestion and illegal egg collection had something to do with it. Up from a mere two to three dozen birds, there are now 425 condors in California (116 of them in the wild), the result of intense efforts on the part of conservationists.
The last 27 wild California condors were captured and placed in a breeding program in 1987, the Big Sur flock the result of releases from that program.
"Its just confirmation that this species can make it, that the habitat is still there, that there still is room for condors in the ecosystem and in the landscape that we share with them," Burnett told the Chronicle. "When we started releasing birds in 1997, a lot of people thought, 'Well, these birds will never figure it out,' but you can't un-program a species that has existed for millennia no matter how long it has been in captivity."
Though still vulnerable, it looks as though the population may be stable for now, this latest birth no doubt raising hope of the species' recovery. The California condor is one of the longest-living bird species, with a lifespan of up to 60 years.
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