Condor Chick: Nest Barrier

Condor chick Cuyamaca as seen on Condor Cam

Condor chick Cuyamaca as seen on Condor Cam

One of my favorite sayings is “boring is good.” When things are boring, everything is going according to plan; excitement is often the result of something going awry. As many Condor Cam viewers have experienced, the rearing process for a California condor can be long and slow—some may even say boring. It makes sense, though, for a condor to develop so slowly; she has lots of growing to do! When our chick, Cuyamaca, hatched, she weighed approximately 6.3 ounces (180 grams). When she reaches her fledge weight of 17 pounds (8 kilograms) or more, she will have increased her hatch weight by 44 times! I, myself, have only increased my birth weight by 19 times.

On July 15, at 112 days of age, Cuyamaca took her most recent step toward leaving the nest: she jumped up onto the barrier between her nest box and the adjoining roost area. She quickly hopped back into her nest, but that’s okay. There’s no hurry to fledge, or leave the nest, just yet. Her feathers still need time to fill in. In the meantime, hopping up and down from the barrier will exercise her muscles and improve her balance. Any day now, she will hop into the roost area on the other side of the barrier. Here, she can look into the flight pen where her parents, Sisquoc and Shatash, are. She also will be able to warm herself in the sun, if she so chooses.

The next step of Cuyamaca’s development will be to fledge. When she is ready, she will jump off of the 8-foot-tall (2.4 meters) nest ledge. She will either slow her fall to the ground below the ledge or fly to a nearby perch. We consider her fledged when she can get up on a perch by herself. The youngest we have seen a condor chick fledge here at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is 123 days old. Sometimes chicks have waited until over 165 days. It all depends on the chick.

The parents tend to be very vigilant at this phase of their chick’s development. It could appear over-protective to us, but keep in mind that they have invested an entire breeding season and lots of energy into this one chick. It benefits them greatly to make sure that their sole offspring is safe, healthy, and strong. They usually don’t coax or pressure their chick to leave the nest; on the contrary, we have seen parents make sure their chick doesn’t stray too far from the nest if it’s not ready yet. The parents will usually perch and/or roost near the fledgling. They also will join her when she finally starts going to the feeding area of the flight pen. Most of the time, though, they will push her aside and eat first, feeding her when they are done. In condor culture, the bigger, more dominant birds usually eat first while the subordinate birds wait their turn. The earlier Cuyamaca learns this from her parents, the better she will assimilate into a wild population after she is released. Don’t worry—Sisquoc and Shatash won’t let Cuyamaca starve! They will continue to feed her even when she is out in the flight pen. Eventually, she will eat more and more on her own.

Depending on Cuyamaca’s development and activity levels, we will try to switch the Condor Cam view from the nest box/roost area to the flight pen. You’ll be able to see the roost area, most of the perches in the pen, the feeding area, shade areas created by plants, and the pool, where she can either drink on her own or bathe (one of my favorite condor activities to observe!). The view will be wide, so detail will be harder to discern. Also, we do minimal maintenance in the pen once the chick is large enough to look over the nest box barrier, so the pen has lots of plant growth and dried food (animal carcasses) in it. We limit our activities in/near chick pens so as not to expose the chick to humans, thus desensitizing her to our presence. We have found that chicks raised in isolation from humans tend to be more successful once they are released to the wild. The flight pen won’t look as nice as an exhibit you might see at the Zoo or the Safari Park, but Sisquoc and Shatash prefer it that way if it means we stay away from their precious chick!

Thanks so much to all of our faithful and dedicated Condor Cam viewers. Soon, your support and devotion will be rewarded when our “little big girl” spreads her wings and takes that next step. Rest assured, though, that Cuyamaca’s story will be far from over!

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

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