Condor Chick: Getting Big!

Papa Sisquoc watches as Cuyamaca stretches a wing.

Papa Sisquoc watches as Cuyamaca stretches a wing.

The results are in: Cuyamaca, our California condor chick featured on this year’s Condor Cam, is a girl! She is now over 100 days old and is starting to get her big-bird feathers. As many of our regular viewers have noticed, her flight feathers are growing in. Some of the first feathers that start to grow are the wing feathers. It is easy to see the feathers growing through Cuyamaca’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 (3 meters)! We are estimating Cuyamaca’s wingspan to be around 5 feet (1.5 meters) right now, between the wingspan of a red-tailed hawk and a bald eagle. Her 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 Cuyamaca’s back will start to grow, as well as the small feathers on the top of the wing (called coverts). Even though many new, black feathers will be covering parts of her body, Cuyamaca will still have lots of gray down showing, making it easy to differentiate her from her parents. Eventually, her light-colored skin will turn dark gray or black and be covered with fine, fuzzy feathers, but this won’t happen until well after she leaves the nest. Her skin will stay dark until she reaches maturity at six years and turns pink-orange, just like her parents, Sisquoc and Shatash.

Cuyamaca had her second health exam on June 10 (see post Condor Chick: 1st Exam), during which our veterinary staff administered her second, and final, West Nile virus inoculation. A blood sample was obtained, and she weighed 14 pounds (6.4 kilograms), over half of her projected adult weight. Even though our little girl is getting big, she still has room to grow!

At the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, the adult condors normally are fed four days per week. They often will not eat every day in the wild, sometimes fasting for up to two weeks, so our nutritionists recommend not feeding them every day to prevent obesity and food waste. Their diet, depending on the day, can consist of rats, rabbits, trout, beef spleen, or ground meat. We offer 2 to 3 pounds (1 to 1.3 kilograms) of food per bird per feeding day. When the condors are raising a chick, we offer extra food every day: 1 rat, 1.5 pounds (0.6 kilograms) of beef spleen, 1 trout, and 8 ounces (227 grams) of ground meat. They don’t end up feeding all of this food to the chick, but we want to be sure that they have enough for the growing baby. It’s difficult to calculate exactly how much food Cuyamaca is eating each day, but we estimate that she could be eating 1.5 to 2.5 pounds (0.6 to 1.3 kilograms) of food per day.

Many Condor Cam viewers have seen some rough-looking interactions between Cuyamaca and her parents. What may have been happening was a form of discipline. As Cuyamaca gets bigger, her begging displays and efforts get 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 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 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 the chick. 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, even though it would be cruel for us to treat our own babies like that! 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 the chick later when it encounters a big, unrelated bird that might not be as gentle.

My next post will include information about Cuyamaca exercising her wings.

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Condor Saticoy at Release Site.

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