A Boy Scout who crafted a California condor puppet to feed the dying species' first captive-bred chick says he won't mind if the project doesn't help him earn scouting's highest rank, Eagle Scout.
Jason Schmuckle, 17, of Vista, worked about 20 hours to make the 2-foot-long puppet, which has a fiberglass beak and skull covered by deerskin and painted to match the condor's distinctive red and black markings.Condor keepers at the San Diego Wild Animal Park are using Schmuckle's puppet to feed Molloko, the 2-week-old chick that was the product of the first captive mating in the history of the critically endangered species.
Schmuckle, a nature enthusiast who has ambitions of becoming a wood craftsman, said he began his puppet making in December when he was looking for a project to earn the Eagle Scout rank.
"I was going to do it whether they accept it as my Eagle Scout project or not. I like the condor," he said. "I really enjoyed doing it. It makes me happy I could help the condor baby survive."
The latest addition to the captive condor flock at the park was introduced last week to the hand puppet, which also is used to preen the chick as its parents would in the wild.
The chick has increased its weight to just over 121/2 ounces, up from the April 29 birth weight of 63/4 ounces. A tiny bandage successfully corrected a leg development problem and has been removed, officials said Tuesday.
Condor keepers say the puppet is crucial to the success of a breeding program to return the species to the wild. Only 28 birds are known to exist, all in captivity - 15 at the Wild Animal Park and 13 at the Los Angeles Zoo.
The chick will be fed with the hand puppet until it is about 5 months old, when it will be released into the company of other juvenile birds, said condor keeper Don Sterner.
"It's very important," Sterner said of the puppet. "The whole idea is we don't want the birds to relate human beings to food. That would bring an identity crisis. . . . The condor will think it's a human or think humans are condors.
"Because of the breeding program, it is important that he, she, or it be able to socialize with other birds and not with humans. More importantly, when the birds are released out in the wild we don't want them to be used to humans and fly in and be shot by hunters."
Hand puppets were used in raising 13 condor chicks hatched from eggs taken from nests in the wild, he said.
In the previous puppets, the skulls and beaks were made of fiberglass molded from castings of a real condor skull and beak at the Natural History Museum in San Diego.
Deerskin was cut, glued and painted to simulate featherless skin on the neck and head. Bands of black and white fake fur stand in for feathers at the bottom of the bird's neck. Eyes donated by a taxidermy shop were set in the skull.
Sterner said Schmuckle improved on the former design, using a tougher deer hide and devising a better jaw hinge for the lower beak that made the puppet easier to manipulate.
Sterner also praised the detailed painting of the deer skin to resemble a true condor's coloring. "It's the closest thing to the real thing. It should do the job," Sterner said.
Schmuckle completed a second puppet this week and is working on a third.
To earn the Eagle Scout rank, he must log more than 150 hours on the project, supervise someone else during its execution and use only donated materials. The project also must benefit a non-profit organization.
He has yet to submit documents of his project - which officially benefits the non-profit California captive-condor breeding program - to a local Eagle Scout board for consideration.