Smart eggs offer hope for endangered California condors. ‘This could be groundbreaking’

Though it may be a “dummy,” a smart egg used at an Oregon zoo offers new insight and hope for critically endangered California condor populations.

The “electronic replica egg,” created by a 3D printer at Texas A&M University, is being used to “gather data from a place no scientist can go”: condors’ nests, the Oregon Zoo said in a May 23 news release and video.

“This could be groundbreaking for California condor recovery efforts everywhere,” Kelli Walker, the zoo’s senior condor keeper, said in the release.

After a condor lays its clutch, the zoo said it sometimes takes “the first-laid egg of one pair to an incubator” to help the egg along. It’s at this point where the smart egg comes in.

“Oregon Zoo staff can temporarily place the smart egg in the nest while the real egg is kept safe in an incubator,” the zoo says in the video.

While in the nest, the egg collects pertinent data, such as temperature and movement, the zoo said.

The egg also records the sounds of “condor parents’ breathing and heartbeats while they take turns sitting on the nest,” the zoo said. The smart egg can then be used to playback the recorded sounds next to a real egg in an incubator.

“We know unhatched chicks can hear their parents while they’re still inside the egg,” Walker said. “Playing them sounds they’d be hearing inside the nest is one more way we can provide the best space possible for them to grow.”

‘Dummy’ eggs yield ‘valuable data’

When Walker learned about dummy egg technology being used for other bird species at various universities, she reached out to professors at San Jose State University and Texas A&M for help in creating a similar egg for condors, the zoo said.

“I sent them dimensions of an actual condor egg, and they used a 3D printer to create two dummy eggs that were exactly the same size,” Walker said.

The zoo said it has used two of the eggs since mid-February, one in the nest box and the other in the incubator, and that the condors have yet to notice a difference.

With a little added weight from rocks stuck on the inside, the eggs “roll around really naturally and so far, the birds seem completely fine with it,” Walker said.

Getting “valuable data” from the eggs will take a little bit; however, “Walker and her fellow condor care staff are optimistic,” the zoo said.

“And with only about 500 California condors in the world, any progress we can make is critically important,” Walker said.

What to know about California condors

“California condors are the largest land birds in North America,” according to the National Park Service.

They were listed as endangered in 1967, NPS said.

Their woes worsened when their population dropped to 22 in the 1980s, at which point all were trapped and “placed in captive breeding programs” to prevent extinction, according to NPS.

“Since 1992, captive-bred condors have been released at five different sites in western North America,” park officials said. “Since their reintroduction, condor numbers in the wild have slowly increased thanks to wild nesting and the release of captive-bred condors.”

At the end of 2022, there were 561 condors globally, NPS said.

Central California condors threatened by deadly disease. What’s being done to protect them?

18 California condors from one flock have died in Arizona, Utah. What’s killing them?