Fostering Condor Chicks

Towich carefully keeps his new chick warm underneath him.

Towich carefully keeps his new chick warm underneath him.

Sometimes things go exactly as you plan. Sometimes Fate throws you a big curveball, forcing you to change that plan. As our Condor Cam viewers know, the egg that was going to hatch on Condor Cam this year under our experienced parents, Sisquoc and Shatash, died unexpectedly at the end of its incubation period on March 16 (see Condor Egg Loss). As a result, we moved the Condor Cam to a different nest in our Condor Breeding Facility at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park so that you could watch another pair, Towich and Sulu, hatch and rear a chick.

The male is Towich (pronounced TOH-witch) and the female is Sulu (SOO-loo). Towich is wearing yellow wing tags, numbered 35. Sulu is not wearing any tags. Towich hatched at the Los Angeles Zoo, one of our valuable partners in the California Condor Recovery Program, in 1996. He was released to the wild in Southern California in 1997 but was returned to captivity when he started showing interest in humans. More than likely, he was fed by people when he was young, causing him to lose his wariness of them. He is no longer suitable as a release bird. Towich’s story serves as an essential reminder that when viewing condors in the wild (or any wildlife, for that matter), it is of the utmost importance that we do not feed them or approach them too closely. Getting that extreme close-up picture or having the thrill of feeding a wild animal is not worth having the condor removed from the wild.

Sulu hatched at the Safari Park in 1990, and she has lived here with us her whole life. Towich is her second mate. She was separated from her first mate in 2000, when it was determined that she and Towich were a better genetic pairing. The pairing process in a breeding program can sound a bit clinical, especially in a species such as the California condor, whose population dropped to only 22 birds in 1982, but we have to be very careful who gets paired with whom in order to maintain as much genetic diversity as possible. Despite the lack of romance in being paired together, Towich and Sulu have developed into an awesome couple. They seldom squabble over food; they often perch near each other in the flight pen; they have excellent nest exchanges when incubating eggs or brooding chicks; and they seem to like to sit or lay down together, along with their chick, in the nest box or the roost.

The egg that Towich and Sulu produced this year was expected to hatch here at the Safari Park sometime around mid-April, but plans change. It was determined that their egg would be sent to the Los Angeles Zoo, along with another of our eggs, and that we would receive two Los Angeles Zoo eggs to hatch here. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which oversees the California Condor Recovery Program, analyzed the free-flying condor population and decided that the two eggs produced at the Safari Park would be good candidates to eventually release in California and that the two Los Angeles Zoo eggs would be better to release at the site in Baja California, Mexico. We were asked to raise the two chicks destined for Mexico, hence the exchange with the Los Angeles Zoo.

Sometimes it can get confusing trying to plan (or explain!) egg exchanges, but it’s all to ensure that we are maximizing genetic diversity among the California condor population, not just in the breeding facilities but at the release sites as well. We received good news from the Los Angeles condor keepers that Towich and Sulu’s egg successfully hatched on April 19, 2014!

Of the two eggs that we received from the Los Angeles Zoo, one hatched on April 12 under two birds familiar to Condor Cam viewers: Sisquoc and Shatash. After their original egg failed to hatch, we kept them sitting on their fake egg (a dummy egg) to keep them in breeding mode, just in case another egg needed to be hatched. Normally, condors incubate their egg for about 56 days until it hatches. If it does not hatch for any reason, they will sit for a little while longer before abandoning the egg. Sisquoc and Shatash were very attentive and sat for a whopping 80 days until their foster egg hatched! The chick is doing very well and is growing quickly, thanks to Sisquoc and Shatash’s devotion.

The second Los Angeles egg was fostered to Towich and Sulu. We were hoping that it would hatch live on Condor Cam, but to follow this year’s theme, plans changed. The embryo in this egg wasn’t positioned quite right in the shell, making hatching on its own very unlikely. We cut a hole in the shell, allowing the chick to breathe more easily. When it looked strong enough, we exchanged the dummy egg in Towich and Sulu’s nest with this newly pipped egg. They bonded immediately to the egg, tending to it faithfully. The next day, on April 29, while they were eating in the pen, we sneaked into the nest to break off some of the shell, simulating a natural hatch. After we were able to evaluate the chick’s health, we carefully placed it back in the empty shell and set it back in the nest. Within 30 minutes, Towich and Sulu removed the chick from the shell and started taking care of it. So far, the chick looks great and can now be seen on Condor Cam!

Fostering is a common technique used in avian breeding. The parents usually accept the new egg and hatch it and raise the chick as if it was their own. This process is very valuable in the California Condor Recovery Program, increasing the opportunities to release parent-reared birds to the wild. Also, fostering allows pairs that lose their eggs, for any reason, to successfully raise a chick together. Repeated success in a nest strengthens the bond between the two parents. Too many failures often lead to the pair squabbling and ultimately dissolving their bond.

Have fun watching Towich and Sulu raise their foster chick this season. They are great parents and should provide you with lots of fun viewing opportunities! We will offer blog updates explaining the chick’s growth process and will try to answer any questions you may have.

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

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