Meet Molloko—One Ugly Chick but Beautiful News for California's Threatened Condors

updated 05/16/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/16/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Although it cost about as much as an F-16 jet fighter to produce, no one was griping about the cost overruns. Nobody cared that this bird, which will eventually have a 10-foot wingspan, wouldn't even take flight for six months. In fact, when the first condor bred and hatched in captivity peeked its dull gray beak out of its shell in the San Diego Wild Animal Park, a park photographer was on hand to record the historic event. After taking 61½ hours to emerge, Molloko (an Indian name for condor) had become the 28th and newest addition to the rarest feathered family in North America.

"You could say this was a $20 million egg, because that's how much has been spent to date to save the California condor," said Don Sterner, 37, lead condor keeper of the park, of the species endangered by poisons and lost habitat. Putting the egg into an incubator hours after it was laid, a crew monitored it for 57 days. A mother's nesting sounds were simulated by tape recordings of bird grunts and chirps and claws rustling in sand. Molloko answered from inside the shell with peeps and wiggling. Fearing that the condor was emerging too slowly and might exhaust itself and die, the team of five scientists performed what could be called an E-section. Dressed in surgical masks and gowns, using gloves and tweezers, they broke the solid eggshell and pulled a thick membrane away from the chick. "The vet tied off one slightly leaking blood vessel, and we put a Band-Aid on it," says Sterner.

The child will never know its parents—UN-1 is the mother and AC-4 the father—because condors lay more eggs when left chickless. Instead, it will receive a hand-delivered diet of chopped newborn mouse, and in four to six months Molloko will be strong enough for a blood test—at which time researchers will determine whether blue or pink booties are in order. And if all goes well, once lots of condors have been zoo-bred, in a few years children of Molloko's will fly the coop and become the first civilized California condors ever released to make it in the wild.

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