How to Spy on Condor Parents With a High-Tech Egg

For two months this spring, a pair of California condor mother and father rigorously tended to a single, monumental egg. They took turns sitting on the egg to maintain it heat, and so they routinely rotated the egg, a habits believed to promote correct chick improvement.

What the birds, a part of a breeding inhabitants on the Oregon Zoo, didn’t seem to discover was that the egg was a high-tech fraud. The plastic shell, made with a 3-D printer, was full of sensors designed to surreptitiously monitor circumstances contained in the condors’ nest.

For weeks, the dummy egg tracked the nest temperature, logged the birds’ egg-turning behaviors and recorded the ambient sound. The zoo hopes this knowledge will permit it to higher replicate pure circumstances within the synthetic incubators which can be key to its condor breeding efforts.

California condors, which may have wingspans of practically 10 toes, are critically endangered. So yearly, when the birds lay their eggs, the zoo whisks them out of the nest and into the security of the incubators. This technique has a number of benefits, prompting some pairs to lay a second egg, enabling the zoo to monitor embryo improvement and defending the delicate embryos from condor rowdiness.

“During the breeding season, tensions have a tendency to run excessive,” mentioned Kelli Walker, the zoo’s senior condor keeper. “And often pairs will get into a combat within the nest room and accidentally injure the egg.” (The chicks are returned to the nest once they start hatching.)

The extra intently the zoo can replicate pure circumstances within the incubators, the extra profitable will probably be. So Ms. Walker enlisted Scott Shaffer, an animal ecologist and chook researcher at San Jose State University, and Constance Woodman, a chook scientist and skilled on conservation expertise at Texas A&M University, who collectively have made data-logging sensible eggs for a lot of totally different chook species.

Here’s how they introduced the condor eggs into being:

Dr. Woodman created a digital mannequin of the imitation condor egg. The shell had to be skinny sufficient for the inner sensors to detect temperature adjustments however strong sufficient to stand up to potential avian abuse. (A macaw as soon as threw one in all Dr. Woodman’s eggs out of its nest, two tales off the bottom.) To make sure the egg wouldn’t pop open, she designed threaded shell halves that may screw collectively tightly. “It will keep closed except you have acquired thumbs,” she mentioned. “Birds do not have thumbs, so we’re in fine condition.”

Dr. Woodman used a 3-D printer loaded with a plastic chosen particularly to be secure for birds, which could spend months sitting on the eggs. “I actually, actually don’t need to imply effectively and poison a chook,” she mentioned. Printing every shell took 13 hours.

To be sure that the egg was not susceptible to spinning or wobbling, Dr. Woodman gave it to Loretta, her litter-box-trained “home turkey,” she mentioned. “If Loretta would not prefer it, she will not sit on it.”

The coloration of chook eggs varies by species, and Dr. Woodman and Dr. Shaffer all the time tries to replicate it as intently as potential. To match the refined, blue-green tint of condor eggs, Dr. Woodman dipped the shells into a pot of a unhazardous dye supposed for youngsters’s clothes.

Small knowledge loggers tucked contained in the shells can observe the temperature and motion of the eggs. An audio recorder captures the sounds within the nest, which the zoo will play again to the eggs within the incubator. “Developing embryos can hear issues by their shells,” Ms. Walker mentioned. And she used electrical tape to cowl the lights on the electronics, “in any other case it could have regarded like a flashing Christmas egg.”

Some birds will reject eggs which can be abnormally gentle. So Ms. Walker used a scorching glue gun to connect rocks to the within of the egg, bringing its weight to greater than half a pound.

The first condor mother and father to obtain a sensible egg this yr have been a feminine recognized solely as quantity 762 and her mate, Alishaw. “He’s not what you’ll name a historically unbelievable dad,” Ms. Walker mentioned. “He’ll incubate so long as he has to, however he isn’t thrilled about it.” (762’s devotion to him, nonetheless, stays undimmed. “She’s form of a ride-or-die with Alishaw,” Ms. Walker mentioned.)

When each birds left the nest, the zoo employees moved their actual egg to an incubator and changed it with the pretend one. The condors didn’t appear to discover. (Their chick, which has since hatched, is again with its mother and father and doing effectively, Ms. Walker mentioned.)

When the breeding season is over, Dr. Shaffer and Ms. Walker will analyze the info. The findings will inform future incubator settings and, the crew hopes, assist deliver extra California condor chicks safely into the world. “It’s simply a actually cool use of expertise that may solely get higher,” Dr. Shaffer mentioned.

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