Vulture chick ‘gives us hope in a time of extreme uncertainty’

Lappet-faced Vulture
A Lappet-faced Vulture chick feeds at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park on March 31. A puppet resembling an adult vulture is used to feed the bird, so it does not imprint on humans. Photo by Ken Bohn, San Diego Zoo Safari Park

One of the zoos that is most famous for its work to prevent the extinction of the California Condor is celebrating the hatching of another endangered vulture in its care: a Lappet-faced Vulture. The chicks’ parents, an 18-year-old male and a 23-year-old female, a bonded pair, have resided at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park since 2018. The zoo is one of five captive-breeding sites for condors.

On January 27, wildlife care specialists were elated to discover the pair had laid an egg. Due to the rarity and importance of this single egg, it was artificially incubated to ensure its safety and to determine fertility. The parents were given a dummy egg to sit on, a practice that plays an important role in the conservation of endangered bird species and has been used with great success in the California Condor Program. About six days later—through a technique called candling, where a light is shone through the egg—wildlife care specialists were excited to discover that the egg was fertile.

Vultures have one of the longest incubation periods in the bird world, and after 54 long days of waiting, the egg finally pipped (the process the chick goes through to break out of the shell) and hatched on March 25. After hatching, the chick, whose sex has not yet been determined, was moved to the Safari Park’s condor breeding facility to be hand-raised by wildlife care specialists. They feed the chick using a puppet that resembles its mother, to prevent it from imprinting on humans. The eggshell was submitted for DNA testing, and the sex of this chick should be confirmed in the near future.

A first for the zoo

“Our entire department is very excited about this chick,” said Kristina Heston, wildlife care supervisor, San Diego Zoo Safari Park. “It is the first Lappet-faced Vulture hatch for San Diego Zoo Global—and it is a significant contribution to the Species Survival Plan program. It also gives us hope in a time of extreme uncertainty.”

When it is hatched, a lappet-faced vulture chick is covered in white down, except for a gray head and neck. Its second layer of down is gray. “The chick is doing amazingly well and is currently being puppet-fed a diet of mice—four to five times a day,” said Erin Womack, a senior wildlife care specialist. “It has a voracious appetite and sleeps a lot, sometimes with its beak open. We are thrilled about the hatching of this important bird.”

Lappet-faced Vultures are the largest of the African vultures and are listed as Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species. San Diego Zoo Global has a long history with these birds—a Lappet-faced Vulture was the very first vulture at the San Diego Zoo, in 1923. At the end of 2018, there were only 26 of these birds in Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)-accredited institutions in the United States and an estimated 8,500 remaining in their native range in Africa and the Middle East.

The Lappet-faced Vulture has a powerful beak that is capable of tearing the hides, tendons, and any other coarse tissue from its prey, which may be too tough for other scavengers. This species is easily recognized due its large size, its bare pink head, and the fleshy folds of skin, called lappets, on each side of its neck, which give the bird its common name. Lappet-faced Vultures can live up to 30 years.

Thanks to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park for providing this news.

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