Moving Day for Condor Cuyamaca

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What's going on? Ron's post explains all.

What’s going on? Ron’s post explains all.

Cuyamaca, the California condor chick who hatched and was raised by her parents Sisquoc and Shatash on the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Condor Cam, has officially flown the coop…in a manner of speaking. On Tuesday, September 3, 2013, we removed her from her parents’ flight pen at our California condor breeding facility and moved her to our remote socialization pen, approximately one mile from the main part of the Safari Park. There, she will be isolated from any human activity and socialized with other fledglings her age: females Wesa (pronounced WAY-sah) and Kimi (KEE-mee), and male Kuyam (KOO-yam). Eventually, she will be joined by two birds yet to fledge: males Pshan (Puh-SHAWN) and Ostus (OH-stuss). She will also be living with 2-year-old juvenile female condor Ihiy (EE-hee), and 9-year-old adult female Xananan (ha-NA-nan).

California condors who are expected to be released to the wild are called release candidates. We raise all of our condor chicks as if they are release candidates until we hear otherwise from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which oversees the California Condor Recovery Program. We have yet to hear if and/or where any of this year’s fledglings will be released; it may not be determined until December. Release candidates are isolated from humans. We offer their food through a chute in the wall, and we don’t pick up any of their old food. The pools are drained and rinsed from the outside of the pen. The only time the birds see us is during a medical procedure: affixing wingtags, doing pre-shipment examinations, or giving West Nile virus inoculations. These generally are not enjoyable experiences for the young condors, and that is what we want them to learn from us before they are shipped to the wild. We don’t want them to associate humans with anything beneficial. We are hoping to foster behaviors that wild condors would have: avoiding human activity and hazardous, artificial situations. Survival rates for condors that become accustomed to humans and human activity are very low.

One of Cuyamaca’s new penmates has a very important role. Xananan, the adult, is acting as the young birds’ new mentor. Her job is to facilitate the socialization of the fledglings. Condors are very social and, like us, need to learn the rules of how to interact in a group. The parent condors started this process when their chicks hatched and continued it as the youngsters eventually fledged. Now that they are no longer living with their parents, Xananan will further their “education.” She will be the dominant bird in the pen, often displacing the fledglings from perches or roost sites or pushing them from the food until she has eaten first. The dominant birds at a site are usually the biggest ones and often the most experienced. The young condors need to learn how to interact with these dominant and pushy birds to be successful in the wild.

The socialization pen is very large with lots of space to fly around and exercise wings. There are several large oak snags on which to perch or roost. Also, there are two pools from which to drink or bathe. There are several ground-level perches and boulders to hop around on as well. It is interesting to see the social development of each bird. They can choose to perch next to whichever bird they wish, so they really get to know each other well. We have learned that young condors that aren’t well-socialized tend not to be successful once they are released to the wild.

Before Cuyamaca was moved, we were able to affix yellow wingtag #79 to her right wing. We normally put the last two digits of the condor’s studbook number on the tag. This wingtag helps to identify Cuyamaca so we can differentiate her from the other fledglings, as they all have their own wingtag numbers. The wingtags serve the same purpose as legbands do for any of the other birds you might see at the San Diego Zoo or the Safari Park. We just can’t use legbands on the condors, as the bands would get encrusted with urates during urohydrosis, and it would become impossible to read the numbers on the band. Urohydrosis is the process in which condors, and all other New World vultures, keep cool. They excrete uric acid, or urates, on their bare legs. When this liquid evaporates, it cools the skin and the underlying blood vessels, similar to how sweating keeps us cool. Another reason condors get wingtags is that they are so strong, they can just bend the legbands right off of their legs!

Cuyamaca weighed 18 pounds (8.17 kilograms) before she was moved to her new pen, very close to her adult weight. She weighed only about 180 grams when she hatched on March 26!

Thanks again for all of the interest, support, and great comments and questions over the past five months. It has been awesome to see how well the Condor Cam was received by all of Sisquoc, Shatash, and Cuyamaca’s new family of fans. It has been an honor to be able to acquaint you with these amazing, beautiful, and majestic birds! Although you cannot watch her anymore, we’ll keep you updated on Cuyamaca’s progress in this next socialization stage of her development.

Luckily, the condor pair housed next door to Sisquoc and Shatash is still raising their chick, so we are able to use the Condor Cam to show you this new family! The male is named Towich (pronounced “TOH-witch”) and the female is Sulu (SOO-loo). The chick’s name is Pshan (as mentioned above), and he is 130 days old. He jumped up onto his nest-box barrier for the first time on September 2 and should be hopping into the adjoining roost soon. I’ll tell you more about this family in the next Condor Cam blog. Stay tuned!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Condor Chick has Fledged!