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Guide to Condor-chick Watching: Ages 1 Week to 1 Month

The condor chick is knows what it wants (food) and knows how to get it from Shatash!

Condor Cam screenshot: Now that the condor chick is a little bigger, it will be easier to get a glimpse of Shatash (seen here) and Sisquoc feeding it.

At approximately two to three weeks of age, the real fun of condor chick-viewing begins! The chick is getting bigger, weighing between 17 and 42 ounces (500 and 1200 grams), and can often be seen poking its head out from under the parents’ wings. The parents might be spending less time sitting on the chick, weather permitting, leaving it unattended for longer periods of time (possibly 30 minutes or so). Never fear—the parents are nearby, often just out of the camera’s view, approximately six to eight feet away.

It is usually easier to observe feeding behavior at this age, as well. The parents stand a little to the side of the chick while feeding now, so you may catch a glimpse of food actually being transferred from the parent to the chick. The chick’s crop—a bulge in the esophagus where food is stored—may be visible when it’s full. Look for a bald patch of skin between the size of a golf ball and a tennis ball. You will also witness a very common behavior called “wing-begging.” This is when 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 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. Both the chick and its parents frequently groom 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 the parents are not covering the chick as much as they were right after hatching.

Some viewers may notice what look like scabs or wounds on its head, neck, and torso, matting its down feathers. No need to worry—what you’re seeing is regurgitated food stuck to the chick’s face or body. Feeding can be quite exciting for the chick and some food doesn’t always end up in its mouth (sound familiar, parents?). The chick obviously can’t take a bath at this age, but the food dries up, gets crusty, and flakes off —a major benefit of having a bald head! Anyone that has seen the big condors eat on exhibit at Condor Ridge at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park or at the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey 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. Never fear – condors have excellent immune systems and are only mildly annoyed by the flies!

At three weeks of age, 2 pounds, 10 ounces to 3 pounds, 4 ounces (1.2-1.5 kilograms), condor chicks can start to thermoregulate, or control their own body temperature. This is when the parents can start leaving the chicks on their 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, the parents may spend time in the nest with the chick, but they may not necessarily sit on the chick.

At this stage, too, 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 through a process called “molting,” similar to when mammals shed their hair or 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 will be 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 weighs around 3 pounds, 15 ounces (1.8 kilograms). The parents may start leaving the chick alone overnight, sleeping near the nest. If the weather is still cool or it is raining, the parents may continue to brood overnight until the weather improves. 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. Read his previous post, A New Condor Chick on Condor Cam.

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A New Condor Chick on Condor Cam

There's a new chick on Condor Cam!

There’s a new chick on Condor Cam!

Welcome back to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Condor Cam! The live-streaming camera provides a rare look into an active California condor nest. Over the next five months, you will be able to witness our newest California condor chick grow, develop, and eventually fledge (leaving of the nest).

Another exciting California condor breeding season is upon us. Our first egg of the season was laid on 13 February 2015. The proud parents are Sisquoc (pronounced “SISS-kwawk”) and Shatash (pronounced “shah-TAWSH”). Sisquoc is the male, and he is wearing yellow wing tags (#28). Shatash, the female, is not wearing any wing tags. Also, Sisquoc is visibly larger than Shatash. He is the largest California condor here at the Park, weighing in at 25 pounds.

Sisquoc was the first California condor ever hatched in a zoo (his egg was laid in the wild and brought to the San Diego Zoo for incubation). He emerged from his shell on 30 March 1983, and news of his hatching triggered an outpouring of mail from all over the world. Congratulatory letters were sent by conservationists, zoos, governments, school classrooms, and many individuals, all wanting to help with the condor project.

Shatash hatched at the Los Angeles Zoo, one of our valuable partners in the California Condor Recovery Program. Her father was the first condor to hatch at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park (again, from a wild-laid egg), back in 1985. Sisquoc and Shatash have been paired together since 1993. This is their 24th egg. Seventeen chicks have hatched, and Sisquoc and Shatash have raised six of them themselves, including two chicks on CondorCam: Saticoy, who is flying free in southern California, and Cuyamaca, who was released in Arizona. The other chicks were raised by keepers who used a condor puppet so the chicks wouldn’t imprint on their human caretakers. Sisquoc and Shatash have proven to be great and reliable parents.

For the last few years, we have been fortunate to be able to show the condor chicks hatching live on CondorCam. This year was a little different. Sisquoc and Shatash’s egg had some complications during incubation. Early on, we saw signs that the embryo might be in the wrong position inside the egg. We call this a “malposition.” A chick should be in a certain position in order to hatch: its tail should be in the pointy end of the egg and the head should be tucked under the right wing and oriented toward the air cell. The air cell is a pocket of air at the big end of the egg. Next time you crack open a chicken egg at home, look for the air cell.

Our early observations proved to be accurate. After taking the egg to our Harter Veterinary Center for radiographs, we were able to confirm that the chick was upside-down in the shell. This is not always a lethal malposition, but it did give us some concern. Think of it like a breech birth for mammals.

A small hole was drilled in the large end of the egg, and then the egg was propped at an angle in an incubator with the chick’s head angled upward. When the weight of the chick’s body caused it to break through the air cell membrane, the chick settled into the big end of the egg, thanks to the drilled hole. The movement downward into the shell provided the chick with more space and air in the small end of the egg where its head was located. This procedure allowed the chick an opportunity to continue the hatching process on its own, without any invasive procedures on our part.

Much to our relief, the chick broke through the shell – or “pipped” – on its own on April 9! The pip was in a really good spot, considering its upside-down position, and was nice and strong. We returned the pipped egg to the parents at around noon on the same day. We quietly snuck into the nest box while they were out eating in their flight pen to exchange the pipped egg for the artificial egg that they had been tending to while we incubated their real one. Shatash returned to the nest and settled back onto her hatching egg.

Happily, the egg hatched with no complications on April 11 at 1:01 p.m.

California condors tend to be monogamous and share ALL nest duties: incubating the egg, brooding the chick, feeding the chick, and defending the nest. Sisquoc and Shatash will take turns tending to the chick.

Sisquoc and Shatash’s new chick is very valuable to the condor population. California condors are critically endangered. In 1982, they were on the road to extinction, with only 22 birds in the world. Today, through breeding programs at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, the Los Angeles Zoo, the Oregon Zoo, and the World Center for Birds of Prey (in Boise, Idaho), as well as intensive field management in the wild, the population is over 430 birds. It’s a nice population increase, but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. This chick represents the next step in the California condor story – and you get to witness it on Condor Cam!

Stay tuned for future weblogs describing the growth and development of our new chick. If you have any questions about what you’re seeing, feel free to ask them in the “Comments” section at the end of this post, and we’ll do our best to provide answers. Happy viewing!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, California Condor Breeding Season.

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California Condor Breeding Season

In 2013, Condor Cam viewers were able to witness a condor chick hatching. Stay tuned to see what happens this year!

In 2013, Condor Cam viewers were able to witness a condor chick hatching. What will we see in 2015? Stay tuned to Condor Cam!

Breeding season is underway at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s California 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 only lasts from mid-October to the beginning of December. We don’t want to cause any 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 during that short 1-1/2 month period we are busy with a multitude of tasks, preparing for the next season.

We made our yearly repairs to our breeding facility: 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. Our pen and nest cameras also get serviced and cleaned. Lastly, and most importantly, the condors get their routine health exams.

Exams are conducted every two years. This year, 6 of our 28 condors were due for exams. During these exams, a number of procedures are completed. Our veterinary staff draws blood samples to test for any potential diseases that the birds may be carrying. 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. A fecal sample is submitted to the lab to test for parasites. And finally, the birds are weighed before being released back into their flight pens.

We also changed 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 they 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 each condor pen at the Safari Park, we clean the nests every year: scrubbing and repainting the walls and changing the sand.

This year’s condor season is off to a slower start than usual. Every so often, based on genetic analysis, we receive new breeding recommendations from the California Condor Recovery Program. Of our seven breeding pairs, three are new pairings. It can take a while for the birds to settle in with their new mates, sometimes up to a year. So, we are not expecting eggs from those three pairs this year, but they could surprise us—you never know! One of our other pairs has a young female in it; only five years old. She is close to laying age, but, again, we are not expecting her to lay this season. Our other three pairs are experienced and have been together for a while.

Two of those pairs have laid so far. The first egg—from our well-known Condor Cam pair, male Sisquoc (pronounced “SISS-kwawk”) and female Shatash (pronounced “SHA-tawsh”)—was laid on 13 Feb 2015. It is doing well and is a potential candidate to hatch as the public watched the Cam this year around April 11. Frequent viewers may recall that Sisquoc and Shatash raised chicks on our livestreaming camera in 2012 and 2013. Their 2014 egg unfortunately failed to hatch, so they foster-reared another pair’s egg off camera.

Our second egg—from male Simerrye (pronounced “SIM-er-eye”) and female Ojja (pronounced “OH-jah”)—was also laid on 13 Feb 2015, fifteen minutes after Shatash’s egg! However, it failed to develop past Day 14 and died—an early embryonic death. Although disappointing, this can happen from time to time, just like with mammals. We removed the non-viable egg from the nest in an effort to persuade Ojja to recycle and lay another egg. For condors, it usually takes about 30 days for the female to recycle. If it’s not too late in Ojja’s season, she could lay another egg around April 5. Considering all of the recent activity at our breeding facility, and the number of new pairs, we are only expecting two to three more eggs for this season. Pleasant surprises are always welcome though!

We are not the only condor breeding facility experiencing a slower year. Our partners at the Los Angeles Zoo, the Oregon Zoo, and the World Center for Birds of Prey have some new pairings as well. Despite this year’s smaller batch of eggs, California condor production will still be good. Keep in mind that there are many wild nests already in progress at all five of the condor release sites in southern and central California, northern Arizona, and northern Baja California, Mexico.

Keep checking Condor Cam. We will soon be switching the camera view from our remote socialization pen to Sisquoc and Shatash’s nest as the due date of their egg approaches.

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Condors: Feeding Time Manners.

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Condors: Feeding Time Manners

Around the corner to the right is where the condors are fed.

The condors are fed around the corner to the right.

After fledging, a growing young condor starts to eat on its own, with the parents continuing to feed the youngster every once in a while. At the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, we do things a bit differently, as the fledged birds are moved to a remote socialization pen with other young release candidates and a mentor bird or two. We don’t move fledglings to the socialization pen until we’ve made sure they have been seen feeding themselves. The mentor birds do not feed anybody.

This year’s Condor Cam chick, Su’nan, who hatched on April 29, 2014, was starting to eat on her own when she was with her parents. When we saw that she was eating on her own, we were comfortable moving her to the socialization pen with the other young release candidates. We drop all of the food at the same time through a chute in the wall, hiding us from the young birds’ view. The most dominant members of the group (usually the biggest or the most experienced) eat first or displace other birds that may be in their way. The subordinate, younger birds usually wait until the dominant birds finish or let them come and eat with them.

Eventually, as the subordinate birds gain experience, they may move up in the social hierarchy. Currently, Su’nan is near the bottom of the pecking order, as expected, due to her size and age. She is doing just fine, though. Feeding is very competitive, just like it is in the wild. It may look rough and impolite to us, but we must remember that the condors are working under the rules that work best in their social system, not ours. This experience the youngsters are getting will better prepare them for a free-flying life in the wild.

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Condors Saticoy and Cuyamaca Flying Free.

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Condors Saticoy and Cuyamaca Flying Free

Saticoy wears his new GSM unit on his wing tag. Photo credit: Geoff Grisdale, USFWS

Saticoy wears his new GSM unit on his wing tag. Photo credit: Geoff Grisdale, USFWS

While observing this year’s Condor Cam chick, Su’nan, many of our regular viewers have been inquiring about the status of the two previous years’ Condor Cam chicks, Saticoy (from 2012) and Cuyamaca (from 2013). Recently, we have received updates from the field biologists that are monitoring and caring for the young birds, and we are excited to share the updates with you!

Saticoy was the first California condor to hatch on Condor Cam. He was released to the wild in November 2013 at the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge in Southern California. Now 2½ years old, we are happy to report that he is thriving and still flying free. Most recently, the field crew was able to trap him in the flight pen at Bitter Creek for a routine health check and to change his transmitters. The field biologists periodically catch the free-flying condors to monitor levels of lead in their blood, since lead poisoning is still their #1 threat.

The condors—and any other carnivore, for that matter—can get lead poisoning from eating an animal that has been shot with lead ammunition. When an animal is shot, the lead bullet fragments and embeds itself throughout the meat. Those fragments are then swallowed as the meat is consumed. Lead is a toxic, heavy metal that is easily absorbed by the digestive system into the bloodstream, resulting in painful and damaging lead poisoning. Any animal that ingests lead can suffer lead poisoning, including eagles, vultures, wolves, coyotes, bears, skunks, snakes, and humans. The California Condor Recovery Program and its partners encourage people to use non-lead ammunition during activities like hunting, pest control, and ranching to help reduce the amount of lead available for consumption by humans and wildlife.

Devon Lang Pryor, Santa Barbara Zoo, hold Saticoy during a blood draw. The blood is taken from the leg. You can see his leg between Devon's knees. Photo credit: Katie Chaplin, USFWS

Devon Lang Pryor, Santa Barbara Zoo, hold Saticoy during a blood draw. The blood is taken from the leg. You can see his leg between Devon’s knees. Photo credit: Katie Chaplin, USFWS

Happily, when Saticoy’s blood was tested during his exam, his field blood lead level was below the threshold for treatment! His original tracking devices stopped working during the summer, so he needed some new transmitters. He received a small telemetry transmitter that was attached to one of his tail feathers , as well as a new GSM GPS transmitter on each wing tag. The GSM transmitters collect a location every 15 minutes during daylight hours, giving us a more complete range map than other GPS units that collect a location every hour. As you can see on his range map, he has been spending the majority of his time this autumn around the Tejon Ranch area, 40 to 60 miles (60 to 100 kilometers) away from his release site in Bitter Creek.

Cuyamaca, the 2013 Condor Cam star, was released in northern Arizona at the Vermilion Cliffs, just north of Grand Canyon National Park, in June 2014. After release, she demanded minimal maintenance from the field biologists. She was flying and feeding well, as well as finding safe and proper roost sites. She blended into the wild population easily! She has yet to range too far from the release site, making the 50-mile (80 kilometers) radius around the site her favored territory. She regularly takes multi-day trips to the Colorado River corridor of Marble Canyon as well as some regular foraging trips to the Kaibab National Forest adjacent to the Vermilion Cliffs. The field crew did observe her being chased by a competing golden eagle. The eagle hit her in the air, and they both tumbled to the ground, but she rebounded immediately and showed no signs of injury. Other than that, Cuyamaca has had a fairly stress-free transition to the wild.

Saticoy's fall 2014 range map was provided by Laura Mendenhall and Joseph Brandt of the USFWS.

Saticoy’s fall 2014 range map was provided by Laura Mendenhall and Joseph Brandt of the USFWS.

Many thanks to our partners in the California Condor Recovery Program for providing these updates, photos, and maps! Devon Lang Pryor of the Santa Barbara Zoo provided Saticoy’s photos and update information. Laura Mendenhall and Joseph Brandt of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service provided Saticoy’s range map. Eddie Feltes of The Peregrine Fund provided Cuyamaca’s update information.

As you can see, it takes a lot of time, effort, and people to prepare young condors for a release program. Without help and enthusiasm from people like you, none of this would be possible. All of us at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park (including all of the condors!) thank you so much.

You can follow the Arizona condor population, which is monitored by The Peregrine Fund, on Facebook via the “Condor Cliffs” page, as well as The Peregrine Fund’s website. You can follow the Southern California condor population, which is monitored by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, on Facebook via the “Condor Cave” page.

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Moving Day for Condor Su’nan.

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Moving Day for Condor Su’nan

Su'nan has left the nest.

Su’nan has left the nest.

A lot has happened this month at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s condor breeding facility. This is the time of the year when we are preparing for the next breeding season: cleaning nests, conducting routine health exams, and providing maintenance to flight pens that were previously off-limits to keepers because of the presence of our young chicks slated for release to the wild. Also, this year we are pleased to report that we are setting up three new breeding pairs here at the Safari Park. But the most exciting piece of news is that our youngest chick and star of this year’s Condor Cam, Su’nan, has finally fledged!

Su’nan left the nest and was able to fly up to the high perches in her pen on October 17 at the age of 172 days. The youngest condor to fledge at the Park was 123 days old, which makes Su’nan a bit of a late bloomer, but that is OK. Her feathers are in beautiful shape, and she has put on a decent amount of weight, measuring in at a petite 16 pounds (7.3 kilograms). When she flew up to the perch, after sunning herself on a low stump, proud papa Towich perched calmly next to her as she preened. It was a view well worth the wait!

Here's a sneak preview of the remote socialization pen where Su'nan now lives.

Here’s a sneak preview of the remote socialization pen where Su’nan now lives.

A few days later, on October 23, it was time to move Su’nan out of her parents’ pen and into 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. 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.

Before her move, we affixed a wing tag to Su’nan’s right wing for identification purposes. She is now wearing wing tag Blue 49. She is sharing this large pen with eight other condors:

Cachuma (ca-CHOO-ma): Female, 31 years old, wearing no wing tags
Xananan (ha-NA-nan): Female, 10 years old, wearing tag Blue 21 (left wing)
Wesa (WAY-sah): Female, 1½ years old, wearing tag Yellow 76 (right wing)
Pshan (puh-SHAWN): Male, 1½ years old, wearing tag Yellow 91 (right wing)
Ostus (OH-stuss): Male, 1½ years old, wearing tag Blue 2 (right wing)
Napay (na-PIE): Male, 7 months old, wearing tag White 24 (right wing)
Qawaq (ka-WAWK): Female, 7 months old, wearing tag Red 26 (right wing)
Issuy (ee-SOO-ee): Female, 6 months old, wearing tag Yellow 43 (right wing)

California condors that 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. Release candidates are isolated from humans. We offer their food through a chute in the wall. The pools are drained and rinsed from the outside of the pen. We don’t pick up any of their old food. The only time the birds see us is during a medical procedure: affixing wingtags, pre-shipment examinations, or 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.

Two of Su’nan’s new penmates have a very important role. Cachuma and Xananan, the adults, are acting as the young birds’ new mentors. The mentor’s 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 the chicks hatched and continued it as the youngsters eventually fledged. Now that they are no longer living with their parents, Cachuma and Xananan will further the fledglings’ education. They will be the dominant birds in the pen, often displacing the fledglings from perches or roost sites or pushing them from the food until they have 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.

So far, Su’nan is taking a very subordinate role in the group, as expected. As she gets more experience, she will gain confidence and assert herself as a competent member of her group. She flies very well in the pen and interacts appropriately with the older birds. Her parents, Towich and Sulu, have done a great job preparing her for the big, wide world!

This is the first year that the Condor Cam is able to broadcast our socialization pen. We are very excited to provide this unique view to all of our dedicated viewers. We plan on starting this camera on Monday, November 3. Enjoy! Feel free to post any comments or questions, and we’ll try to get them answered as soon as we can!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, To Fledge or Not to Fledge.

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To Fledge or not to Fledge…

Su'nan is back in her nest...for now!

Su’nan is back in her nest…for now!

That is the question.

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 flight pen, approximately 10 feet off the ground. When condor chicks fledge, they tend to be 140 to 150 days old. The youngest bird to fledge here at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park was 123 days old. Su’nan in now 162 days old, but she has yet to fledge.

Many viewers have been worried about this Condor Cam chick’s health and/or development. First of all, let me assure you that Su’nan is very healthy and safe. We are not concerned that she is a “late bloomer.” Although she may be a little behind compared to some of our condor chicks, we have had birds fledge even later than this.

Our condor nest boxes are 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 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 above the ground. There is a 5-inch-diameter 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 as well.

Early in the day on September 24, at 149 days of age, Su’nan walked down the pole ladder into the flight pen for the first time. Her parents, Towich and Sulu, kept a close eye on her as she investigated her new surroundings. She drank from the pool, even dunking her head in the water. She picked at old food from the ground. She had a fun time hopping around and flapping her wings. Towich and Sulu watched nervously, making sure their chick was safe and didn’t stray too far from the nest. At one point, when she did move to where her parents were uncomfortable, they corralled her back toward the nest. Frustration ensued and some firm discipline followed. Please note that Towich and Sulu were merely trying to protect their chick, their “investment,” you might say! Su’nan did not take kindly to this, and she stayed on the ground, hiding behind a sumac bush for the remainder of the day. Towich and Sulu made attempts to try to get her back up the pole ladder and back into the nest, but Su’nan did not comply. Su’nan spent that night out of the nest, on the ground in the pen. Her parents perched nearby to watch over her.

The next morning, after Towich and Sulu again tried to move her toward the nest, she finally climbed back up the pole ladder and quickly hopped back into the nest box. She stayed in there for several days, eventually warming back up to her parents’ company. Regular feeding bouts were reestablished. She has been a little standoffish with Towich, but he is the one to do most of the disciplining and preening—two necessary activities that the chicks don’t seem to appreciate. Sulu usually just comes into the nest to feed; naturally, Su’nan is more excited to see her! It’s important to note that BOTH parents are still heavily invested in this chick and are trying their best to ensure her success.

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 the nest!

Su’nan is starting to come back out into the roost and onto the ledge. She has been seen testing her wings on the ledge in the morning sun. Her wings are looking nice and full. Hopefully soon, she will take that next step and fledge into the flight pen. When she does, we will be sure to switch the Condor Cam view to the pen view so you can watch her.

So what’s next for Su’nan once she fledges? 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. Soon, Su’nan 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.

And on that note, we have some exciting news! This year, we were able to install some cameras at our remote socialization pen at the Safari Park. Once Su’nan is moved up there with the other young condors, we will be able to provide a view from those cameras, so you will be able to watch Su’nan for much longer than you were able to watch the previous Condor Cam chicks, Saticoy and Cuyamaca.

The interest and enthusiasm over the hatch and growth of Su’nan have been wonderful. We really appreciate all of the comments and questions we have received throughout her development. Thanks again for all of your patience and 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 Fostering: Close to Fledging.

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Condor Chick Ready to Fledge

The Condor Cam caught Su'nan perched on the ledge.

Su’nan is perched on the barrier between the nest box and the roost area.

As many Condor Cam viewers have experienced, the rearing process for a California condor can be long and slow. It makes sense, though, for a condor to develop so slowly. She has lots of growing to do! When our chick, Su’nan, hatched on April 29, she weighed approximately 6.3 ounces (180 grams). When she reaches her fledge weight of 17 pounds (8 kilograms) or more, she will have increased her hatch weight by 44 times! In contrast, I have only increased my birth weight by 19 times.

On August 27, at 121 days of age, Su’nan took her most recent step toward leaving the nest: she jumped up onto the barrier between her nest box and the adjoining roost area. She quickly hopped back into her nest, but that’s okay. There’s no hurry to fledge, or leave the nest, just yet. Her feathers still need time to fill in. Hopping up and down from the barrier will exercise her muscles, as well as improve her balance. She has since started hopping into the roost area on the other side of the barrier. Here, she can warm herself in the sun, if she chooses.

Su'nan stretches out one of her fast-growing wings.

Su’nan stretches out one of her fast-growing wings.

While out in the roost, she can also rest or sleep in the shade, perch with her parents (if they are not perched out in the flight pen), or step out to the roost ledge to soak up the sun’s rays for the first time. The ledge is about 8 feet (2.4 meters) from the ground—high enough to make the parents feel comfortable and secure in their nest but not as high as a condor nest in the wild. Su’nan may get near the edge, but she will be cautious in doing so, so she doesn’t teeter off. It is natural for condor chicks to explore and exercise on the edge of their nest cavities. Rarely do they fall out; in 32 years of raising California condors here at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, we have never seen a chick fall from its nest area.

The next step of Su’nan’s development will be to fledge. When she is ready, she will jump off of the nest ledge. She will either slow her fall to the ground below the ledge or fly to a nearby perch. We consider her fledged when she can get up on a perch by herself. The youngest we have seen a condor chick fledge here at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is 123 days old. Sometimes chicks have waited until over 165 days. It all depends on the chick.

She's made it to the other side!

She’s made it to the other side!

The parents tend to be very vigilant during this phase of their chick’s development. It could appear overprotective to us, but keep in mind that they have invested an entire breeding season and lots of energy into this one chick. It benefits them greatly to make sure that their sole offspring is safe, healthy, and strong. They usually don’t coax or pressure their chick to leave the nest; on the contrary, we have seen parents make sure a chick doesn’t stray too far from the nest if it’s not ready yet. The parents will usually perch and/or roost near the fledgling.

They also will join her when she finally starts going to the feeding area of the flight pen. Most of the time, though, they will push her aside and eat first, feeding her when they are done. In condor culture, the bigger, more dominant birds usually eat first, while the subordinate birds wait their turn. The earlier Su’nan learns this from her parents, the better she will assimilate into a wild population after she is released. Don’t worry: Towich and Sulu won’t let Su’nan starve. They will continue to feed her even when she is out in the flight pen. Eventually, she will eat more and more on her own.

Her foster parents keep her company in the roost area.

Her foster parents keep her company in the roost area.

Depending on Su’nan’s development and activity levels, we will try to switch the Condor Cam view from the nest box/roost area to the flight pen. You’ll be able to see the roost area, most of the perches in the pen, the feeding area, shade areas created by plants, and the pool, where she can either drink on her own or bathe (one of my favorite condor activities to observe!). The view will be wide, so detail will be harder to discern. Also, we do minimal maintenance in the pen once the chick is large enough to look over the nest box barrier. 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 the chick to humans, thus desensitizing 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 Zoo or the Safari Park, but Towich and Sulu prefer it that way, if it means we stay away from their precious chick!

Thanks so much to all of our faithful and dedicated Condor Cam viewers. Soon, your support and devotion will be rewarded when our “little big girl” spreads her wings and takes that next step. Rest assured, though, that Su’nan’s story will be far from over!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Condor Chick Foster: Name is Chosen!

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Condor Chick: Name is Chosen!

Su'nan peeks over the ledge at Dad, left, and Mom.

Su’nan peeks over the ledge at Dad, left, and Mom.

The naming poll results are in: the name of the California condor chick featured on San Diego Zoo Global’s Condor Cam is Su’nan, Chumash for “to continue to, to keep on”! She is now over 90 days old and is starting to get her big-bird feathers. Some of the first feathers that start to grow are the wing feathers.

It is easy to see the feathers growing through Su’nan’s down: the down feathers are gray, but the new flight feathers are black. The long feathers that grow from the tip of the wing are called primary feathers, and the feathers from the wrist to the armpit are secondary feathers. Primary and secondary feathers are the giant feathers that make the California condor’s wing so large and impressive. An adult can have a wingspan of up to 9.5 feet (2.9 meters)! We are estimating Su’nan’s wingspan to be around 5 feet (1.5 meters) right now, between the size of a red-tailed hawk and a bald eagle. Her tail feathers are also starting to grow. They’re a little harder to see on camera, but you should be able to spot them soon.

After the wing and tail feathers fill in, the feathers on Su’nan’s back will start to grow, as well as the small feathers on the top of the wing, called coverts. Even though many new, black feathers will be covering parts of her body, she will still have lots of gray down showing, making it easy to differentiate her from her parents. Eventually, her light-colored skin will turn dark gray or black and be covered with fine, fuzzy feathers, but this won’t happen until well after she leaves the nest. Her skin will stay dark until she reaches maturity at 6 years, and it turns pink-orange, just like her foster parents’, Towich and Sulu.

Su’nan had her second health exam on July 14, during which our veterinary staff administered her second, and final, West Nile virus inoculation. A blood sample was obtained, and she weighed 11 pounds (5 kilograms), over half of her projected adult weight. Even though our little girl is getting big, she still has room to grow!

The adult condors are fed four days a week. The other three days they are fasted. They often don’t eat every day in the wild, sometimes fasting for up to two weeks, so our nutritionists recommend not feeding them every day to prevent obesity and food waste. Their diet, depending on the day, can consist of rats, rabbits, trout, beef spleen, or ground meat. We offer 2 to 3 pounds (1 to 1.3 kilograms) of food per bird per feeding day. When the condors are raising a chick, we offer extra food every day: 1 rat, 1.5 pounds (0.7 kilograms) of beef spleen, 1 trout, and 0.5 pounds (0.2 kilograms) of ground meat. They don’t end up feeding all of this food to Su’nan, but we want to be sure they have enough for the growing baby. It’s difficult to calculate exactly how much food Su’nan is eating each day, but we estimate that she could be eating 1.5 to 2.5 pounds (0.7 to 1.1 kilograms) of food per day.

Many Condor Cam viewers have seen some rough-looking interactions between Su’nan and her parents. What may have been happening was a form of discipline. As Su’nan has gotten bigger, her begging displays and efforts have gotten more vigorous, which can be bothersome or problematic for parents wanting some peace and quiet. They have two ways to make sure Su’nan does not cause too much trouble while begging: leave immediately after providing food, which is what we’ve seen a lot of on Condor Cam, or discipline the unruly chick. This discipline can come in the form of the parent sitting or standing on Su’nan, or the parent may nip or tug at her. Either of these behaviors results in Su’nan being put in her place by the dominant bird in the nest, thus ending the undesired behavior. Sometimes, this discipline may occur before the chick acts up. Be mindful that this is perfectly normal for condors to do, even though it would be cruel for us to treat our own babies like that! When condors fledge, or leave the nest, they need to know how to interact with dominant birds at a feeding or roost site. This seemingly rough behavior from the parents will benefit Su’nan later when she encounters a big, unrelated bird that might not be as gentle.

Su’nan hasn’t jumped up on the nest box ledge yet, but she may soon. Stay tuned for our next blog that will discuss this big milestone! Also, we would like to thank all of the Condor Cam viewers for their patience while we had camera difficulties for a week or so in July. Our technician replaced the power supply and the camera with very minimal disturbance to the condor family.

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

5

Condor Chick Fostering: First Exam

Boy or girl? We'll find out soon!

Boy or girl? We’ll find out soon!

On Thursday, June 12, 2014, the California condor chick you’ve been watching on Condor Cam received its first health exam. The goal was to obtain a blood sample for our labs, administer a vaccine for West Nile virus, inject a microchip for identification, and weigh the chick.

The first step in this process is to separate the parents from the chick. Of course, the foster parents (father Towich and mother Sulu) don’t want any invaders in the nest and do their best to defend the chick and keep it safe, as all good parents do. Adjacent to the flight pen, we have a shift pen, used to safely and calmly move large or dangerous animals from one area to another. We offer all of the condors’ diet in the shift pen, so Towich and Sulu are very comfortable entering the shift pen for every meal. We shifted Towich into the pen and kept him there until after the exam. From his shift pen, he cannot see the nest area, so he was unaware that we were even in his nest, thus keeping him very calm. He ate and waited patiently until he had access back into his flight pen.

Sulu was not shifted but instead was able to see us go into her nest. We posted one keeper in the nest entryway to keep Sulu out, while another keeper entered the nest and covered the little chick with a towel. This is the first time that the 45-day-old chick had ever seen a person and was understandably nervous and defensive, hissing and lunging at the intruder. Once under the cover of the towel, the chick could not see and calmed down. It was then brought into the adjoining vestibule where our veterinarian staff was waiting.

First, the veterinarian obtained a blood sample from the chick’s leg. This sample was sent to the lab to make sure that the chick is healthy. Also, our geneticists can determine if it is male or female from this sample. Next, a vaccine for West Nile virus was administered and a microchip was injected under the chick’s skin. The veterinarian did a quick health assessment, checking the chick’s eyes, nares (nostrils), beak, feet, legs, wings, and abdomen. Lastly, we weighed the chick to make sure it was growing on schedule.

While the exam took place, a third keeper was able to enter the nest to clean the camera domes and make sure there were no hazards in the nest cavity. The whole exam, from capture to release, took about 10 minutes.

Once the exam was over, the chick was returned to the nest and Sulu was allowed to approach and check on her baby. The chick was rightfully disturbed by this process, despite our best intentions to minimize stress. Although we feel bad that the chick was so nervous, it is actually good that it was not comfortable in our presence. We have to keep in mind that we don’t want the young condor to become accustomed to or feel reassured by humans; we want it to be a wild condor, uninterested and wary of humans, so that it may someday fly free in California, Arizona, or Mexico. Condors that show an affinity for humans seldom survive in the wild.

For several minutes, the chick showed a defensive posture, hissing at everything it saw, even its mother. Sulu slowly approached her chick and calmly preened it, eventually soothing it. That is the reason we shifted only one parent; we wanted the other parent present to calm the chick after the exam. After only about two minutes, the chick was showing proper begging behavior, resulting in a feeding session from Sulu. With everyone appearing calmer, Towich was let out of his shift pen. About five minutes after that, he approached the nest to peek in on the chick and to perch in the adjoining roost area.

So far, the health exam looks to have been successful. Hopefully, the blood work will show that the chick is healthy. The veterinarian’s initial inspection revealed that the chick’s eyes and nares were clear, the feet, legs, and wings were solid, and its vitality was very strong. The chick weighed 6.8 pounds (3.10 kilograms) and was about the size of a bowling ball. We hope to receive the sex results from the Genetics Lab soon. When we do, we’ll let you know if the chick is a male or a female.

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Condor Chick Fostering: 30 to 45 Days.