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Condor lays egg in Mexico, could herald return

SAN DIEGO — An egg found in an abandoned eagle nest could
herald the return of the California condor to Mexico, which hasn't
had a breeding population of the iconic giant of the skies for
about 75 years.

``This is a momentous occasion,'' Dr. Mike Wallace of the
Zoological Society of San Diego said Monday. ``We're all excited.''

The California condor, once on the brink of extinction, is the
largest bird in North America with a wingspan of almost 10 feet.

Wallace and colleagues found the egg March 25 on a cliff in the
Sierra San Pedro de Martir National Park, located in the arid
interior of the Baja California peninsula more than 100 miles south
of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Wallace climbed to the nest and took photographs and
measurements of the egg, shining a bright light through the shell
to determine that the egg was 45 to 50 days old. Condor eggs
incubate for 57 days, meaning the chick could hatch any day. There
was also a chance the egg was dead, but Wallace said he did not
smell any sulfur and the parent condors were still tending to it.

``We are all sitting on pins and needles waiting to see where
the situation is going,'' said Wallace, who works for the
zoological society's center for Conservation and Research for
Endangered Species. The society also runs the San Diego Zoo and its
wild animal park.

The California condor was once widespread, swooping above the
western United States, parts of Canada and Baja California.

A type of vulture, the condor scavenges dead fish and animals.
As coastal population of seals and otters declined, so too did the
bird. The use of poison to kill California's grizzly bears in the
1800s also devastated their numbers and lead shot remains a
potential source of poison. Hunting, egg collecting and power
cables were also blamed for hurting the creature's numbers.

Only 22 California condors were left by the 1980s, and the last
documented sighting in Mexico was in the 1930s, Wallace said.

Thanks to a captive-breeding program, numbers recovered to a
worldwide total of about 280. More than 100 of these fly free in
the skies above parts of California, Nevada and Utah. Working with
the Mexican government, biologists reintroduced captive-bred birds
to Mexico in 2002.

Condors don't reproduce until they are several years old,
Wallace said. The 7-year-old female that laid the egg in Mexico,
known as Condor 217, was born at the Los Angeles Zoo.

Another species of condor, found in the Andes, is also
threatened with extinction, but its numbers are in the thousands,
Wallace said.

Several organizations have been working together to boost condor
numbers under the Condor Recovery Program, which was founded in
1982 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Among them are several
Mexican groups, the Los Angeles Zoo, Peregrine Fund's World Center
for Birds of Prey and Oregon Zoo.