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Biologists worry after condor hatchling at Zion National Park loses its father

A rare California condor chick has hatched at Zion National Park in Utah, but officials are concerned for its survival after the death of one of its parents.

Biologists from The Peregrine Fund, the nonprofit conservation group responsible for releasing and monitoring condors, noticed late last week that the hatchling’s father, known as Condor 337, was acting strangely. When they moved in for a closer look, they found him sick and in need of care.

After the 16-year-old bird was captured, a field blood test revealed elevated levels of lead in his bloodstream. Condor 337 was transported to The Peregrine Fund’s facility in Northern Arizona for treatment, but he died the next day.

The bird’s remains will be sent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine the cause of death, according to a release from the national park, which is 160 miles northeast of Las Vegas.

Biologists arenow closely monitoring the chick and its mother, Condor 409, to determine whether they are in danger. Both appear healthy, said Chris Parish, who heads the condor program for The Peregrine Fund.

Parish said the chick looks to be old enough to maintain its own body temperature, which should free up the female to find food for them both.

He said biologists are set to intervene at the first sign of trouble. That could mean capturing and treating the mother if she falls ill or sending climbers down the cliff to the nest to collect the chick.

“It’s been done before,” Parish said. “I guess it’s kind of like firefighting: You risk a lot to save a lot.”

If the chick survives to adulthood, it would mark the first time a California condor hatched in Utah has joined the wild population.

The same pair of condors produced a chick in 2014, but it died. Then last year, GPS data suggested the pair might be breeding again, but observers never found the nest or spotted a young bird in the area.

Biologists and park staff members have been closely watching the pair since Feb. 26, when they were seen entering a cave in Zion Canyon.

The California condor is the largest land bird in North America. It used to range across the continent until the 20th century, when poaching, lead poisoning and habitat loss caused its numbers to plummet. The bird was declared extinct in the wild in 1987, but captive-bred condors have been reintroduced to the coastal mountains of California and northern Mexico.

The condors at Zion came from an experimental recovery program launched in 1996 at Vermilion Cliffs National Monument on Arizona’s northern border.

That effort has produced more than 20 young, including some birds fledged from nests established by wild-hatched condors. Park Service officials said there are now about 80 California condors living in Utah and Arizona.

Lead poisoning remains the biggest threat to the species of scavengers, which unintentionally ingest the toxic metal while feeding on the carcasses or gut piles of animals shot with lead ammunition.

The Zion Canyon area where the nest is has been closed to rock climbing.

Contact Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350. Find @RefriedBrean on Twitter.

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