Plotting the future of the California condor

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Condors, like most vultures, are beautiful on the wing, ugly on the ground. A California condor soaring silently against a brilliant sky is an unforgettable sight. The dark gray-to-brown body, up to 41/2 feet long, is carried on wings of up to 9 feet, tip-to-tip. The wings have a white bar on top and white undersides. The featherless head is orange, the neck red.

Like most vultures, Gymnogyps californianus feeds on carrion, soaring high and far to spot its meals.

The condor breeds in caves or on mountain ledges (most nesting sites now are in national parks or other protected areas), laying one or two eggs that incubate for 45 to 55 days.

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Much is still unknown about the California condor's breeding habits, but some recent findings are encouraging.

For example, a mating pair recently knocked an egg out of the nest, and it was smashed on the rocks; but they replaced it within the nesting period, and the new one was was one of the eggs hatched at the San Diego Zoo.

The Andean or South American condor (Vultur gryphus) is a bit larger than its California cousin, ranges through the mountains of western South America from Colombia to Cape Horn, and seems in no danger at this time.

Scientists are not certain what led to the decline of the California condor, especially in the last three or four years.

But John Ogden of the National Audubon Society says that, earlier, shooting and accidental poisoning destroyed many. Pesticides may have had an adverse effect in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he adds.

Jeff Jouett of the San Diego Zoo project says it may not be possible to restore the condor in its original California coastal habitat. He speculates that the species might be established someday in the Grand Canyon area, or even in South America.

These are among the 30 current wild animal species for which breeding programs are established or being planned: The Asian lion, Asian otter, Arabian oryx, scimitar-horned oryx, Siberian tiger, snow leopard, black rhinoceros, Sumatran rhinoceros, Przelwalski's horse, barasingha deer, okapi, gaur, ruffed lemur, black lemur, golden lion tamarin, Grevy's zebra, lion-tailed macaque, gorilla, orangutan, Bali mynah, white-naped crane, Humboldt's penguin, and Chinese alligator.

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