Diana Nelson Jones' Walkabout: Condors give aviary a bigger reason to flap its wings


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Lurch stepped gingerly through the snow before hopping onto the straw in his shed at the National Aviary on Monday. It has been at least 43 years since he knew the cold altitudes of the Andes, where condor populations have diminished in proportion to enhanced efforts to reintroduce them to the wild.

Of 73 condors in North American zoos last year, just one female produced a viable hatchling. That was one reason the aviary decided to take on a new pair and a new mate for Lianni, the female it has had since 1985. Lianni's original mate died in 2012.

Lurch and his new mate, Precious, were both caught in the wild. Lurch is estimated to be at least 43, and Precious at least 36. Captive birds can live as old as 80. When the aviary sought to get them, it joined a management plan coordinated at the San Diego Wild Animal Park for all Andean condors.

With few condors being caught in the wild and so few in collections, zoos throughout the world are networking to ensure best genetic pairings for successful breeding, said Kurt Hundgen, the aviary's director of animal collections. A survival plan tracks all the known captive animals based on where they have been, which in part dictates where they will go.

He said survival plans are no longer just for threatened birds because all captive bird populations need genetic diversity for long-term survival.

So far, Lurch and Precious, both most recently from zoos in Texas, look like a good match.

"They have displayed good behaviors," Mr. Hundgen said. "There's been some neck rubbing, and the female isn't overly aggressive or shy. Males can be very aggressive, and females need to put them in their place."

Both have experience at breeding, he said. The third new condor, named Handsome, was born in captivity. He comes from Zoo Boise in Idaho.

As much as you might swoon over condors, the names Precious and Handsome beg for some tweaking. But Lurch wears his name well. Not only does he walk stiffly, but he was captured in the Andes about the same time that Pittsburgh-born actor Ted Cassidy was portraying the character Lurch on TV's "The Addams Family."

The condors at the aviary live in the outdoor exhibit just north of the Arch Street entrance. These are birds for whom people pull their kids over to ooh and aah before they go inside. Lucky visitors can see their wings open to the full 10-foot span. Sometimes they hold their wings open Dracula-like and gaze at gawkers as if they're listening for something they need to know.

These are not interactive birds. Their chances of breeding go down if they are messed with much, and they can deliver a nasty bite or scratch.

In the wild, deforestation and other encroachments have limited their range, from Colombia to Chile. They're not only invaluable predators of rodents, they check the spread of disease. They are listed as "near threatened" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Zoos and aviaries no longer want to cull the wild for condors to exhibit or breed.

"We are practicing field conservation, and so we're going the opposite way -- breeding birds to return to the wild," Mr. Hundgen said. Toward this end, the aviary is in preliminary talks with a facility in Ecuador to start a reintroduction program.

Research on condor behavior hasn't been sufficient to know whether they mate for life or take to multiple arranged pairings. And then there's that variable of compatibility. Just because the best matchmaker says this pair should go together, "it's only true on paper," Mr. Hundgen said. "Introducing two incompatible birds can be stressful" and result in no breeding.

Lianni has hatched three chicks during her tenure at the aviary. Two were introduced into the wild, and the other is in the Cincinnati Zoo. Lianni is currently off exhibit while her new potential mate is in his two-month quarantine.

Meanwhile, Lurch and Precious are getting to know each other. By summer, aviary visitors should see some changes in the exhibit and be able to view all four birds on display. The administration is seeking funding for exhibit enhancements that would include a higher rock wall to better simulate the heights condors like for breeding.

If Lurch and Precious follow through according to the best-laid plans, a baby condor will punch its head out of a new, cone-shaped egg by April.


Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.

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