Preparing for Condor Breeding Season

A California condor spreads it magnificent wings.

A California condor spreads it magnificent wings.

Even though there are currently no condor chicks to feed or eggs to care for, this is still a hectic time at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s condor breeding facility. In order to maximize success for the breeding pairs and their chicks, we try to conduct all of our maintenance work in the “off season,” which lasts from mid-October to the beginning of December. We don’t want to cause unnecessary disturbances during egg production, incubation, or chick-rearing. The chicks are usually moved from the parents’ pens by October, and the new courtship season is in full swing by December, so that short period is the time we are busy with a multitude of tasks, preparing for the next season.

We have been making our yearly repairs: replacing wood that may have been chewed by curious condors, securing perches, fixing leaky pool valves, repairing shift pen doors, and adding visual barriers to better hide human activity to newly fledged chicks that may be released to the wild someday. We also try to weed the majority of the flight pens, opening up area on the ground so the parents can forage for food and small bones in preparation for egg laying. The trees and shrubs also get pruned so video camera access does not become obscured, and our pen and nest cameras get serviced and cleaned. Lastly, and most importantly, the condors get their routine health exams.

Exams are conducted every three years. This year, 11 out of our 31 condors were due for exams. During these exams by our veterinary staff, a number of procedures are completed. Blood samples are taken to test for any potential diseases. A full body inspection is conducted, examining the tail, wings, feather condition, heart rate, respiration rate, eyes, ears, and mouth. If any wing tags need to be replaced, we do it at this time; the next time you see Sisquoc or Towich on camera, you may notice their nice, new wing tags! A fecal sample is submitted to the lab to test for any parasites. And finally, the birds are weighed before being released back into their flight pens.

Condor Cam viewers have noticed that the nest boxes have barriers preventing the condors from entering them. We have been changing the soiled substrate in the nests so that when the next breeding season begins, the nests are clean. Normally, in the wild, a condor pair can have several nest sites within its breeding territory, and the parents don’t always nest in the same cave every year. By changing nest sites, this allows the used nest to dry out and, hopefully, eliminate any nest hazards (insects, parasites, diseases, etc.) before the pair decides to nest in it again, preventing any potential health threats to a newly hatched chick. Since we only have one nesting cavity in our condor pens at the Safari Park, we clean the nests every year: we scrub and repaint the walls and change the sand.

The condors can now settle into the new season. Courtship displays should start occurring with more regularity throughout December. The male will display to the female with wings either partially or fully outstretched; his head will be arched, and his mouth will usually be open. Sometimes he may display with a feather or some food in his beak. He will sway back and forth and will walk toward or around the female, almost like he is in a trance. The female may tug at his feathers or the skin on his neck or face. Breeding can be observed throughout December and January. You can recognize this activity when the male is standing on the female’s back and he’s flapping his wings to keep his balance. This is usually very quick in smaller birds, but for condors, it can last for several minutes. Lastly, eggs are laid anytime between early January and mid-April. One of the females at the Safari Park has been laying her first egg of the season in late December for the past two years – very early for California condors!

Of course, we’ll keep you posted about any eggs as they are laid here at the Safari Park, so you can prepare to meet our next little Condor Cam superstar. Enjoy the season!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Saticoy Flies into the Wild!

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