How to spy on condor parents using a high tech egg


For two months this spring, a pair of California condor parents carefully looked after one huge egg. They took turns sitting on the egg to keep it warm, and routinely rotated the egg, a behavior thought to encourage Proper development of chicks.

What birds are part of it Population proliferation At the Oregon Zoo, they didn’t notice that the egg was a high-tech scam. The plastic shell, made with a 3D printer, was packed with sensors designed to surreptitiously monitor conditions inside the condor’s nest.

For weeks, the dummy egg tracked the temperature of the nest, recorded egg-turning behaviors and recorded ambient sound. The zoo hopes this data will allow it to better replicate natural conditions in the artificial incubators that are central to its condor breeding efforts.

The California condor, which can have a wingspan of about 10 feet, is so Endangered. So every year, when the birds lay their eggs, the zoo takes them out of the nest and into safety incubators. This strategy has many advantages, inducing some pairs to lay a second egg, enabling the zoo to monitor embryo development and protecting fragile embryos from the clamor of the condors.

“During the breeding season, tensions tend to run high,” said Kelly Walker, the zoo’s senior condor keeper. “Sometimes the pairs get into a fight in the nest chamber and accidentally hit the egg.” (The chicks are returned to the nest when they begin to hatch.)

The more closely a zoo can replicate natural conditions in incubators, the more successful it will be. So Ms. Walker enlisted Scott Schafer, an animal ecologist and bird researcher at San Jose State University, and Constance Woodman, an ornithologist and expert in conservation technology at Texas A&M University, who together created data-recording smart eggs for several different bird species.

Here’s how they brought condor eggs into existence:

Dr. Woodman has created a digital model to mimic a condor egg. The shell needs to be thin enough for the internal sensors to detect changes in temperature but strong enough to withstand potential bird abuse. (A parrot once threw Dr. Woodman’s eggs out of his nest, two stories from the ground.) To ensure the egg would not open, I designed screw-on shell halves that would fit tightly together. “It will stay closed unless you have a thumb,” she said. “Birds don’t have thumbs, so we’re doing well.”

Dr. Woodman used a 3D printer loaded with plastic specifically chosen to be safe for birds, which may spend months sitting on eggs. “I really, really don’t want to mean well and poison a bird,” she said. It took 13 hours to print each shell.

To ensure that the egg did not rotate or vibrate, Dr. Woodman gave it to Loretta, the “domestic turkey” she had trained in the litter box. “If Loretta didn’t like it, she wouldn’t sit on it.”

The color of bird eggs varies in different species, and Dr. Woodman and Dr. Schafer always try to imitate it as closely as possible. To match the blue-green color of the condor eggs, Dr. Woodman dipped the shell into a vat of non-toxic dye intended for children’s clothing.

Tiny data loggers tucked inside the shells can track the temperature and movement of the eggs. A voice recorder captures sounds in the nest, which the zoo will play back to the eggs in the incubator. “Developing embryos can hear things through their shells,” Ms Walker said. She used electrical tape to cover the lights on the electronics, “otherwise it would look like a blinking Christmas egg”.

Some birds reject abnormally light eggs. So Mrs. Walker used a hot glue gun to stick rocks to the inside of the egg, bringing its weight to over half a pound.

The first condor parents to receive a smart egg this year were a female known only as 762 and her mate Alishaw. “He’s not what you would call a traditional great dad,” said Mrs. Walker. “He’ll cuddle as long as he has to, but he’s not happy about it.” (762’s devotion to him, however, remains unmoved. “It’s a ride-or-die kind of thing with Alishaw,” Mrs. Walker said.)

When both birds left the nest, zoo staff transferred their real egg to an incubator and replaced it with the fake one. The condors didn’t seem to notice. (Their chick, who has since hatched, is back with her parents and doing well, Mrs. Walker said.)

When the breeding season ends, Dr. Shaffer and Ms. Walker will analyze the data. The findings will benefit future incubator settings, and the team hopes to help bring more California condor chicks safely into the world. “It’s a really cool use of technology that’s only going to get better,” said Dr. Schafer.


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