Condor Chick: Getting Big!

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Saticoy, in one of his ungainly resting poses.

Saticoy, our little, fluffy California condor chick, is starting to get his big-bird feathers! As you may have noticed on Condor Cam, his flight feathers are growing in. Some of the first feathers that start to grow are the wing feathers. It is easy to see them growing through Saticoy’s down; the down feathers are gray, but the new flight feathers are black. The long feathers that grow from the tip of the wing are called “primary feathers,” and the feathers from the wrist to the armpit are “secondary feathers.” Primary and secondary feathers are the giant feathers that make the California condor’s wing so large and impressive. An adult can have a wingspan of up to 9½ feet (2.9 meters)! We are estimating Saticoy’s wingspan to be around 5 feet (1.5 meters) right now, between the size of a red-tailed hawk and a bald eagle. His tail feathers are also starting to grow. They’re a little harder to see on camera, but you should be able to spot them soon.

After the wing and tail feathers fill in, the feathers on Saticoy’s back, as well as the small feathers on the top of the wing (called “coverts”), will start to grow. Even though many new, black feathers will be covering parts of his body, Saticoy will still have lots of gray down showing, making it easy to differentiate him from his parents. Eventually, his light-colored skin will turn dark gray or black and be covered with fine, fuzzy feathers, but this won’t happen until well after he leaves the nest. His skin will stay dark until he reaches maturity at six years and it turns pink orange, just like his parents’, Sisquoc and Shatash.

Saticoy had his second health exam on May 18, during which our veterinary staff administered his second, and final, West Nile virus inoculation. A blood sample was obtained, and he weighed in at 12.78 pounds (5.8 kilograms), over half of his projected adult weight. Even though our little boy is getting big, he still has room to grow!

Many Condor Cam viewers have seen some rough-looking interactions between Saticoy and his parents, especially dad Sisquoc. What may have been happening was a form of discipline from Sisquoc. As Saticoy has gotten bigger, his begging displays and efforts have gotten more vigorous. These efforts can sometimes be bothersome or problematic for parents who just want some peace and quiet. The parents have two ways to make sure that the chick does not cause too much trouble while begging: they can leave immediately after providing food, which is what we’ve seen a lot of on Condor Cam, or they can discipline the unruly chick. This discipline can come in the form of the parent sitting or standing on the chick, or the parent may nip or tug at it; either of these behaviors results in the chick being put in its place by the dominant bird in the nest, thus ending the undesired behavior.

Sometimes this discipline may occur before the chick acts up. Be mindful that this is perfectly normal for condors to do! When condors fledge, or leave the nest, they need to know how to interact with dominant birds at a feeding or roost site. This seemingly rough behavior from the parents will benefit Saticoy later when he encounters a big, unrelated bird that might not be as gentle.

With his new, long wing feathers, Saticoy will be exercising his wings more often in the form of strong flapping. You will notice that, as his wings gain more surface area, he will be able to lift his body off of the nest floor. He won’t be able to fly, but he’ll be a step closer. Plus, his legs will be getting stronger and more coordinated, allowing him to jump higher. When he is between 90 and 110 days old (June 7 to June 27), we expect him to be able to jump up onto the entry barrier of the nest box. It could be earlier or later, as each chick develops at a different rate. The barrier is 18 inches (45 centimeters) tall, so if he can jump up onto it, it’s not a long fall if he slips. Usually, the chicks are strong enough to jump down without slipping. Hopping up and down from the nest barrier exercises Saticoy’s wings, and perching on it helps improve his balance. He may even sleep on top of the barrier!

From the barrier, Saticoy will be able to hop back into his nest, if he wants to, or he can hop into the adjoining roost area, most of which can be viewed on Condor Cam. While out in the roost, he can rest or sleep in the shade, perch with his parents (if they are not perched out in the flight pen), or step out to the roost ledge to soak up the sun’s rays for the first time. The ledge is about 8 feet (2.4 meters) from the ground, high enough to make the parents feel comfortable and secure in their nest but not as high as a condor nest in the wild. Saticoy may get near the edge, but he will be cautious in doing so, so he doesn’t teeter off. It is natural for condor chicks to explore and exercise on the edge of their nest cavities. Rarely do they fall out; in 29 years of raising California condors here at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, we have never seen a chick fall from its nest area prematurely.
Saticoy will fledge, or leave the nest, on his own terms. When he is ready, he will either jump to the floor of his flight pen or fly from the roost ledge to one of the perches in the pen. We have seen chicks do both: clumsily and tentatively parachute to the ground and gracefully fly all the way across the pen and land next to the parents. Chicks have fledged as early as 123 days of age and as late as 165 days. We consider them fledged when they perch up off of the ground while out in the pen. In future blog entries, I’ll explain what to expect once Saticoy fledges, as well as what is in store for him if he is released to the wild.

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Condor Chick: Lonely?