It is usually easier to observe feeding behavior at this age, as well. Sulu or Towich stand a little to the side of the chick now, so you may catch a glimpse of food actually being transferred from parent to chick. The chick’s crop may be visible as a bald patch of skin when it’s full. It is between the size of a golf ball and a tennis ball. You will also witness a very common behavior called wing-begging; the chick is begging for food, flapping one or both of its stubby little wings and bobbing its head excitedly. This behavior can persist until after the chick fledges, or leaves its nest, at four to five months.
The chick hatched wearing a fluffy coat of white down feathers. The main function of down is insulation; it can either keep a bird cool or warm, whatever its body needs. At this stage, the chick’s white down is starting to transition to gray. Sometimes this can make the chick look dirty or scruffy, but it is still as healthy as it ever has been. It and the parents are frequently grooming the feathers to make sure they are working the way they should be. These dark feathers also help the chick blend in with the substrate and the nest cave walls, since Towich and Sulu are not covering the chick as much as they were.
You may have noted that the chick looks like it has scabs on its head/neck or has wounds on its body, matting its down feathers. This is actually regurgitated food stuck to its face or body. Feeding can be quite exciting for the chick, and some food doesn’t always end up in its mouth! The chick obviously can’t take a bath at this age, but the food will dries up, gets crusty, and flakes off, a major benefit of having a bald head! Anyone who has seen the adult condors eat on exhibit at Condor Ridge at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park or Elephant Odyssey at the San Diego Zoo can attest to the condors’ ability to keep clean after a messy meal. Also, the presence of flies in the nest is nothing to worry about. Keep in mind that condors are carnivores, feed their chicks via regurgitation, and nest in cavities (caves, crevices, etc.) that are often sheltered from the wind. All of these components add up to a very comfortable environment for flies as well as condors. Yet condors have excellent immune systems and are only mildly annoyed by the flies!
As of this writing, our Condor Cam chick is a little over two weeks old. At three weeks of age, it can start to thermo-regulate, or control its own body temperature. This is when its devoted foster parents can start leaving the chick on its own during the day. Depending on the ambient temperature, the chick may be seen shivering or panting in an effort to warm or cool itself. Also, on warm days, the chick may inflate the air sacs in its chin and neck to cool down. Air sac inflation can also occur after a particularly filling meal. Often, Sulu or Towich may spend time in the nest with the chick, but they may not necessarily sit on the chick.
The chick is more mobile, scooting around the nest on its haunches, or tarsal joints. We refer to this as a tarsal crawl. It’s not quite standing up on its feet, but it can move about, following the parents and investigating different parts of the nest. You may see the chick start to gather items (feather, scraps of old food) from around the nest and move them to one corner. The chick likes to sit or sleep on this pile and play with the different items. These feathers and old food scraps are often brought to the nest by the parents. Birds replace their feathers molting, similar to when mammals shed their hair/fur. We don’t know if the parents are bringing these items to the nest specifically for the chick or if it’s just happenstance, but the chick loves to investigate and play with them!
As the parents start leaving the chick alone for longer periods of time, it will be easier to watch the chick when it sleeps. Just like all growing youngsters, condor chicks sleep A LOT. With longer legs and gawky bodies, they often are sprawled out, wings askew, in odd positions when they sleep. Do not worry! The chick is perfectly fine.
At approximately 1 month of age, the chick should weigh around 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms). The parents may start leaving the chick alone overnight, sleeping near the nest. If the weather turns cool or it’s raining, the parents may continue to brood overnight. Even though the parents are increasing their time away from the chick, they remain VERY vigilant and protective of their nest and, especially, their chick.
Happy viewing, and thanks so much for your support!
Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.