Although Saticoy was the first California condor chick to be raised in public view, via our Condor Cam, he’s not the first condor to be raised at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. We have hatched 177 chicks here since 1985. His parents, father Sisquoc and mother Shatash, have been productive contributors to the California Condor Recovery Program. To date, they have produced 16 chicks and have parent-reared 5, including Saticoy. One was foster-reared by our Andean condor pair when Sisquoc and Shatash were not able to raise their own that year. The other 10 chicks were raised by keepers using a condor puppet to prevent imprinting. Of their 16 chicks, 12 have been released to the wild—southern and central California, northern Arizona, and Baja California, Mexico—and are identified by their studbook numbers instead of names.
The southern California release area is composed of different release sites in the Los Padres National Forest near the Sespe Condor Sanctuary. Sisquoc and Shatash have had two chicks released here, one at Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge and one at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge. Both of these birds (female #255, 11 years old, and male #590, 1 year old) are still alive and flying free. #255 has nested successfully in the wild, providing Sisquoc and Shatash with their first “grand-chick!”
Two more of their chicks were released in the Ventana Wilderness in Big Sur, central California. Sadly, they both died in the wild. One-year-old male #363 was found starved and emaciated from unknown causes in 2006. His brother, #301, died in 2007 at age 4 when he collided with power lines. Power lines have traditionally been a hazard for California condors and other large-winged birds. Condors have been killed when they hit the power lines, often breaking wings or necks. Sometimes, because of their large wingspans, they get electrocuted when they land on the poles or transformers, which look like good perches. Thankfully, power line interactions are not as frequent as they once were, as we now condition young birds to avoid power poles. This conditioning often stays with them, causing them to find better and safer places to perch than on a power pole. Also, utility companies have helped by putting metal flappers on long spans of wire to make the power lines easier to see, and thus easier to avoid, for flying condors. In some cases, power companies have also gone to the expense of burying problematic electric lines.
Sisquoc and Shatash have had three of their chicks released in northern Arizona at the Vermilion Cliffs, just north of Grand Canyon National Park. Condors released in this area are often seen in the Grand Canyon and in Zion National Park in Utah. Male #287, 10 years old, and male #520, 3 years old, are still flying free, but their sister, #548, was killed by a mountain lion while she was roosting for the night when she was almost 2 years old. Other predators of condors include coyotes, bobcats, and bears. Predation of condors doesn’t happen very often, but it is a natural hazard of living a wild life.
Five more chicks of Sisquoc and Shatash’s have been released in northern Baja California, Mexico, in Sierra de San Pedro Martir National Park. Three of them are alive and well: female #395 (6 years old), female #469 (4 years old), and male #495 (4 years old). Their brother, #315, was found dead on a nearby beach from unknown causes when he was 3 years old. A sister, #407, died from lead poisoning when she was 2 years old.
Lead poisoning is the single biggest hazard preventing California condors from thriving in the wild. They get lead poisoning from eating lead-tainted meat. Condors are scavengers, only eating meat they find already dead; they don’t hunt. They eat almost any kind of animal, no matter how it died: hit by a car, disease, predated by another animal, or shot by people. Although lead-free ammunition is available, the majority of ammunition contains lead, a very toxic and soft metal. When lead ammunition hits its target, it fragments into small pieces throughout the animal carcass. If this carcass is left out in the wild, it is eaten by scavengers, including condors, turkey vultures, coyotes, bears, wolves, and eagles. This almost always results in the scavenger becoming poisoned by the lead fragments. Lead poisoning, if untreated, results in paralysis and death.
Sometimes, if field biologists are able to catch the sick condors before too much damage is done, the lead can be removed from the condors’ bodies through a process called chelation (see post Condor Rescue in the Grand Canyon). Although we have the ability to save a condor from dying from lead poisoning, we still don’t know the long-term effects to multiple lead exposures on the nervous and reproductive systems. An alarming majority of the 200+ condors that are flying free have been exposed to lead at least once, so it is a top priority of the California Condor Recovery Program to reduce the amount of lead available in the environment. It is very important for us to switch to lead-free ammunition whenever possible.
Four of Sisquoc and Shatash’s chicks were not released to the wild. Two died when they were very young, before they were old enough for release. One is on exhibit at the San Diego Zoo in Elephant Odyssey: male #500, 3 years old. When he is old enough, he will be paired with a female to become part of the breeding program, and someday his chicks will be released to the wild.
And the last one is Saticoy, #636. See Condor Saticoy Update.
Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.