Chick Watching: Hatch to 1 Week

This California condor chick is being fed by a hand puppet. The chick you see on Condor Cam is fed by its parents.

Condor Cam at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park provides an opportunity to watch the inner workings of a condor nest, an experience usually limited to keepers and field biologists. We hope you are enjoying it as much as we are! Many viewers have expressed some concerns while watching the little California condor chick hatch and grow. Thank you so much for caring! The chick’s development and health are progressing perfectly. Parents Sisquoc and Shatash are doing an excellent job! Being able to determine if all is well in a nest can often be difficult, especially if you don’t have anything to which you can compare. I’d like to provide some developmental and behavioral guidelines that we consider to be normal for a healthy condor family.

The chick hatched on March 10, 2012, weighing around 190 grams (6.7 ounces). The hatching process can be grueling, so afterward the chick usually rests a lot and is brooded, or sat on, by the parents. We often call this “sitting tight,” as the parents are providing protection and warmth, especially while the newly hatched chick is drying off. With the chick being weak and wobbly, it often is hard to feed, but that is okay. The chick is getting nutrients from the yolk sac that it absorbed into its belly just before hatching. After about a day, the chick can hold its head steady, and the parents start providing food. They eat food that we offer out in the flight pen and then bring it to the chick in their crop (a bulge in their esophagus where they can store up to 3 pounds or 1.3 kilograms of food). The food is regurgitated for the chick, providing a warm and nutritious meal. Mmm! The diet we provide varies, depending on the day, but it can include rabbits, rats, trout, beef spleen, and ground meat. While the chick is very young, it is often difficult to witness a feeding, since the parent is standing directly above the chick, blocking the camera’s view. If you see a parent slightly bobbing its head while standing over the chick, feeding is occurring. Feeding sessions are fairly short for small chicks, since their crops are only about the size of a lima bean.

Both California condor parents provide care for the chick. This drive is very strong, and it’s not uncommon to see the parents vying for time with the chick, especially immediately after hatching. This happens in the form of leaning into each other, pushing one’s way onto the chick, scooping the chick from one parent to the other, or nipping at neck skin or tugging at feathers to get the other parent to move. Usually, one parent acts more dominantly and controls the interactions a little more than the other parent. This time, mother Shatash took this dominant role, despite her being much smaller than Sisquoc. Other years, we’ve seen Sisquoc take this role. We interpret this periodic shift in dominance, and the other bird’s acceptance of this shift, as a very good trait in a condor pair. As time passes after hatch, they settle into a routine, and the nest exchanges become much calmer.

One viewer concern was the number of times that the chick was stepped on by the parents. In many species, ranging from hummingbirds to elephants, babies get slightly squished by the parents. Usually, it’s just a minor misstep, and the baby lets the parent know with a brief vocalization. Condors are no different or no more fragile. They are very hearty little chicks! As young as four days of age, we have seen chicks sifting through the sand in the nest, picking up items on their own. We’ve even seen chicks swallowing small pieces of their eggshell for dietary calcium.

At the end of the condor chick’s first week of life it weighs around 300 grams (10.5 ounces). It is getting much stronger but is not venturing around the nest very much yet. Coordination is improving, and we can witness social interactions with the parents: nibbling, preening, and nuzzling. Every once in a while, you may see the chick quivering, almost like it has the hiccups. It is actually vocalizing. Condors don’t have a true voice box, or “syrinx,” like other birds, but they can make crude, primitive vocalizations. Adults may grunt, wheeze, or hiss. Chicks can make a high-pitched, scraping squawk, usually when begging or out from under the parents for too long.

The next few weeks of development are very exciting, not just for the condor family, but for any of us watching on the Condor Cam. Stay tuned!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Condors: Big Day Approaching.

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