On Friday, May 10, our California condor chick Cuyamaca received its first health exam. We normally conduct this exam at around 45 days of age. The goal was to obtain a blood sample for our labs, administer a vaccine for West Nile virus, inject a microchip for identification, and weigh Cuyamaca, the chick who can be viewed on our popular Condor Cam.
The first step in this process is to separate the parents from the chick. Of course, father Sisquoc and mother Shatash don’t want any invaders in the nest and do their best to defend the chick and keep it safe, as all good parents do. Adjacent to the flight pen, we have a shift pen, used to safely and calmly move an animal from one area to another. We offer all of the condors’ diet in the shift pen, so Sisquoc and Shatash are very comfortable entering it for every meal. We shifted Sisquoc into the pen and kept him there until after the exam. From his shift pen, he cannot see the nest area, so he was unaware that we were even in his nest, thus keeping him very calm. He ate and waited patiently until he had access back into his flight pen.
Shatash was not shifted and was able to see us go into her nest. We posted one keeper in the nest entryway to keep Shatash out while another keeper entered the nest and covered little Cuyamaca with a towel. This is the first time that Cuyamaca had ever seen a person and thus was understandably nervous and defensive, hissing and lunging at the intruder. Once under the cover of the towel, Cuyamaca could not see and calmed down. The chick was then brought into the adjoining vestibule where our veterinarian staff was waiting.
First, the veterinarian obtained a blood sample from Cuyamaca’s leg. This sample is sent to the lab to make sure the chick is healthy. Also, our geneticists can determine if Cuyamaca is male or female from this sample.
Next, a vaccine for West Nile virus was administered. Then a microchip was injected under Cuyamaca’s skin. This chip is a form of identification. It’s the same kind of chip you can get for your dog or cat from your veterinarian. The veterinarian then gave a quick health assessment, checking Cuyamaca’s eyes, nares (nostrils), beak, feet, legs, wings, and abdomen. Lastly, we weighed Cuyamaca to make sure it was growing on schedule.
While the exam took place, a third keeper was able to enter the nest to clean the camera domes and make sure there were no hazards in the nest cavity. The whole exam, from capture to release, took approximately 15 minutes.
Once the exam was over, Cuyamaca was returned to the nest and Shatash was allowed to approach and check on her chick. As previously mentioned, Cuyamaca was rightfully disturbed by this process, despite our best intentions to minimize stress. Although we feel bad that Cuyamaca was so nervous, it is actually good for the chick to not be comfortable in our presence. We have to keep in mind that we don’t want Cuyamaca to become accustomed to or feel reassured by humans; we want it to be a wild condor, uninterested and wary of humans, so that it may someday fly free in California, Arizona, or Mexico. Condors that show an affinity for humans seldom survive in the wild.
For several minutes, Cuyamaca showed a defensive posture, hissing at everything it saw, even its mother. Shatash slowly approached her chick and nervously preened it, eventually soothing it. That is the reason we shifted only one parent; we wanted the other parent present to calm the chick after the exam. About 10 minutes later, Cuyamaca was showing proper begging behavior, resulting in a feeding session from Shatash. With everyone appearing calmer, Sisquoc was let out of his shift pen. Approximately 20 minutes after that, he also went in to feed Cuyamaca. If he was alerted to our presence and was upset, he would have immediately entered the nest to check on his chick.
So far, the health exam looks to have been successful. The blood work showed that Cuyamaca is healthy. The chick’s eyes and nares were clear, the feet, legs, and wings were solid, and vitality was very strong. Cuyamaca weighed 7.7 pounds (3.55 kilograms) and was approximately the size of a bowling ball. We have yet to receive the sex results from the Genetics Lab, but when we do, we’ll let you know if Cuyamaca is a male or a female.