Condor Chick has Fledged!

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Perhaps one day Cuyamaca will be flying free.

Perhaps one day Cuyamaca will be flying free.

We have now switched camera views for the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Condor Cam. As faithful viewers, you have been able to watch our California condor chick, Cuyamaca, hatch and grow in her nest box. Now, you are able to view her out in her flight pen with her parents, father Sisquoc and mother Shatash, because Cuyamaca has taken the next exciting step in her development: She has fledged!

Fledging is the process in which a young bird leaves the nest. We consider a California condor chick to be fledged when it can fly to the higher perches in the pen, approximately 10 feet off the ground. When condor chicks fledge, they tend to be around 140 or 150 days old. The youngest bird to fledge here at the Safari Park was 123 days old. Cuyamaca left her nest for the first time at 136 days of age.

Our condor nest boxes are elevated: they’re on the second floor of the condor breeding facility. The nests have one entrance that leads to the roost area. The entrance has an 18-inch (45 centimeters) barrier at the base to prevent young hatchlings from wandering out of our camera’s view. This barrier also provides exercise for the chick when it is big enough to start jumping up onto the barrier. The roost area is open to the flight pen and has a ledge that is about 8 feet (2.4 meters) off the ground. There is a 5-inch-diameter (12 centimeters) pole leaning from the ground to the ledge; we call this the pole ladder. The condors can walk up or down this pole ladder to get to or from the nest; they can, of course, fly to the nest if they desire.

Late in the day on August 8, Cuyamaca was out on the ledge with her parents. She was nudged off the ledge by one of them, and she flew a short distance into the pen and landed on the ground. She walked around the pen for a few hours, investigating her new environment. She was able to get up on an 8-foot-tall stump perch, and she stayed there for a little while. Sisquoc later joined her and moved her to a large olive tree, where he and Shatash like to perch. She spent the night high in that olive tree with both of her parents roosting nearby, keeping a watchful eye on her.

In the morning, Cuyamaca hopped down to the ground and continued to investigate the pen. Again, Sisquoc accompanied her. He steered her toward the pool, and she took a drink of water for the first time. Until then, she had gotten all of her water from her parents and the food that they brought to the nest for her. Then, she started to play in the shallow part of the pool, taking her first brief bath. A short time later, she wandered over to the shift pen, a small side pen where we leave food for Sisquoc and Shatash. Sisquoc joined her here as well, and he picked up large pieces of beef spleen for her to nibble on. (For those who remember, Shatash performed the same sort of duties for their chick from last year, Saticoy.)

When condor chicks fledge in the wild, it can be a long process as well. They often walk around the mouth of their nest cave, hopping about, testing their wings. They may hop or climb into nearby shrubs or trees to get a better vantage point. Very seldom do chicks just spring forth from their nest into the wild blue yonder. They usually need to exercise and build their abilities before embarking on such a dangerous venture. Mom and Dad are always present to escort or protect the chicks, too. Parent condors can be very vigilant and defensive of their chicks. After all, much energy and many resources went into producing just this one chick, so they try very hard to ensure success for their only nestling. One pair of condors in California actually chased a black bear away from their nest!

With this new camera view, you’ll be able to see the roost area, most of the perches in the pen, the feeding area (shift pen), shade areas created by plants, and the pool. The view is wide, so detail is a bit harder to discern. Also, we do minimal maintenance in the pen, 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 Cuyamaca to humans, which would desensitize 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 San Diego Zoo or the Safari Park, but Sisquoc and Shatash prefer it that way if it means we stay away from their precious chick!

If, by chance, you don’t see Cuyamaca out in the pen, she could be resting in the shade of the roost, or she may have hopped back into the nest box. This is completely normal. The adult condors do the same thing. Just give her a little time; she’ll come back out into view later. We have a great volunteer staff that moves the camera for the nest box view, but we keepers move the camera when it is the pen view. We’ll do our best to zoom in to give you a good view of her when we can, but we are not always near the camera controls when we are taking care of the other condors.

So what’s next for Cuyamaca? She’ll stay in the pen with her parents for a little while longer. She is still learning from them. In the wild, condor chicks stay with or around their parents for up to 18 months. We don’t let them stay that long here at the Park. If we did, the next breeding season would probably be compromised; the presence of the fledgling may prevent the parents from breeding the next year, or the parents may turn aggressive to the chick if they try to nest again. Sometime in the fall, Cuyamaca will be removed from her parents so they can prepare for the next breeding season, and she will be introduced to other birds her age and an adult bird to act as a behavioral mentor. In the meantime, it will be decided whether she will be a candidate for release to the wild (and where) or held back for the captive breeding program. I’ll keep you informed when this happens. Until then, please continue to keep checking in on our big girl.

The interest and enthusiasm over the hatch and growth of Cuyamaca have been wonderful. We really appreciate all of the comments and questions we have received throughout her development. Thanks again for all of your support; we couldn’t do it without you!

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