California condors have hatched chicks in the wild in the state’s first-ever “virgin birth” of the endangered predators. Five chicks, whose sperm were donated by researchers in Southern California, were found in eggs laid by adult condors last week, and four of them hatched on Saturday, the California Condor Recovery Team said in a statement Monday.
After the adult males are killed in the wild, usually in collisions with large drones or deer, their sperm are donated to female condors in captivity who then mate with their captive partners. The females produce the eggs for the birds in captivity and release them to the wild after mating.
Condors in captivity are not intended to breed with those they are already partnered with, according to the statement. The newly hatched chicks “must have never acted with normal sexual behavior,” cautions the team, because “predators do not normally imitate males.”
With the so-called “virgin birth,” the remaining captive-reared condors in captivity will be moved away from the parents and are no longer considered interbreeding partners, the group said.
Two female condors born in captivity are living with the female chicks for now and will be brought into the wild later.
“When we calculated the odds of these eggs, we initially guessed it was between one in six and one in nine million,” said study co-author Don Grover, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We went back and did some work on the little experimental kits we have in other countries to really assess the odds and to actually get a more accurate number. The bottom line was that the probability is one in two million — one in two billion.”
Condors are California’s top predator and have been extinct in the state for decades, until recent restoration efforts using captive breeding and genetic material have begun to bring them back. Today, there are 25 condors in captivity in the United States, but there are only 350 adults left in the wild. “Imagine a small school of fish on a bald eagle with an eighth-grade level education,” writes researcher Bobbi Zahnd, of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, about the species.
The five eggs were laid on Aug. 31 by the community of 34 condors in that area and the young birds were able to fly away from the area in a day or two, according to a note posted to the Condor Recovery Team’s website. The mother condor spent the day with the new chicks and returned on Monday. The eggs were laid at 1,770 and 1,810 feet altitude, which is a “prime nesting site” for birds in the wild, according to the team.