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About Author: Ron Webb

Posts by Ron Webb

3

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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Condor Egg Fails to Hatch

This dummy egg looks just like a real California condor egg and serves as a placeholder.

This dummy egg looks just like a real California condor egg and serves as a placeholder.

As keepers, we often have the privilege to witness or even help usher in a new hatch or birth into the world. Of course, working alongside our excellent veterinary staff, we provide assistance and supportive care to maximize survivability, but sadly, sometimes it isn’t enough. We experienced this recently at our California condor breeding facility at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park when one of our condor eggs failed to hatch. This egg was expected to hatch under our experienced Condor Cam parents, Sisquoc and Shatash, who for the last two years have raised their chicks, Saticoy and Cuyamaca, under the watchful and adoring eyes of thousands of their fans. Saticoy is now flying free in Southern California, and Cuyamaca was recently sent to Arizona to be prepared for release there.

We usually remove the egg after it is laid so we can artificially incubate it and monitor its development without disturbing the very protective parents. While we are caring for the real egg, we give the parents a fake egg (called a dummy egg) to incubate. This dummy egg serves as a placeholder until the real egg is ready to hatch; without it, the parents would not accept the real egg when we would try to replace it in their nest.

While we were caring for Sisquoc and Shatash’s egg, we weighed it daily to track its weight loss, and we candled it periodically to monitor development inside the shell. During incubation, we noticed that the embryo was slightly in the wrong position to hatch—a malposition. Some malpositions are lethal or need our help to hatch successfully. This embryo’s malposition was not extreme and would not normally need our assistance. What was more concerning was the condition of the membranes surrounding the embryo: loose and saggy when they should have been taut. Concern grew that these membranes would cause difficulty in breathing for the embryo once it moved into the egg’s air cell to begin pulmonary respiration. The loose membranes could adhere to the embryo’s nostrils, suffocating it.

Despite 24-hour care from our keepers and a valiant effort from our veterinary staff, the embryo stopped breathing partway through the hatching process on Sunday, March 16, 2014. The egg was expected to hatch around March 20. The embryo and egg are now at our Pathology Lab; hopefully, we will have more information regarding the cause of death.

Egg mortality is highest at the beginning and at the end of the egg’s incubation period. Sometimes there can be a genetic issue causing the embryo to stop developing. Sometimes the egg can get too hot or too cold during incubation, the egg can get jostled, humidity can be too high or too low, etc. Despite setbacks such as this, our “hatchability” rate at the Safari Park is still very high at over 85% success, much higher than wild eggs that have to contend with nest predators, competitors, and a lack of veterinary support.

So, what’s next for Sisquoc and Shatash? They are still incubating their dummy egg perfectly and are being considered as potential foster parents if another condor egg needs to be parent-reared. They will still sit on the dummy egg, even after the due date of their original egg, but only for about a month or so. After that, they will start to tend to the egg less. We see this behavior in birds that are incubating an infertile egg or an egg that died during incubation. If another condor egg needs to be foster-reared, we can return that egg to their nest, and they will hatch it and raise it as their own. Their drive to care for an egg/chick is so strong that they don’t know or care if it’s not their egg. If another egg doesn’t need fostering, we will remove the dummy egg from their nest. They will then shift from nest-caring duties and spend more time in their flight pen. It may seem sad, but that is what happens to wild birds whose eggs do not hatch.

What’s next for Condor Cam? We have moved the camera to a different nest to show you another of our awesome condor pairs, Sulu and Towich, whose egg is due mid-April. Stay tuned for a blog introducing the new pair.

Thanks so much for all of the comments and condolences regarding the loss of Sisquoc and Shatash’s egg. There are still 30 other California condors at the Safari Park that need us to give them the best care we can. With hope, luck, and your support, we can continue to maximize success for these magnificent birds!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post,
Egg-citing News on Condor Cam
.

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Egg-citing News on Condor Cam

A precious California condor egg is candled to check on fertility and condition.

A precious California condor egg is candled to check on fertility and condition.

We have good news to report: California condors Sisquoc and Shatash’s egg is FERTILE! Shatash laid the egg on January 22, 2014, and we are expecting it to begin the hatching process around March 18. So, it is approximately one-third of the way through its 56-day incubation period.

Condor Cam viewers have been watching Sisquoc and Shatash take turns caring for and incubating their egg. Well, actually, they’ve been caring for a wooden egg that we refer to as a dummy egg. We use a dummy egg as a placeholder until their real egg is ready to hatch. It’s not as if we don’t trust them with a real egg; on the contrary, they have proven to be very reliable parents! When we place the egg in an incubator, and let the parents sit on a dummy egg, we can more closely and conveniently monitor the egg’s progress and offer any necessary assistance without disturbing the doting parents.

We weigh the egg every day and candle it every few days. When we candle the egg, we hold it up to a bright light that illuminates the interior of the egg, allowing us to see inside. We can monitor blood vessels, membrane development, embryo growth, and movement. As of now, we can see the embryo, which is about 2 inches (5 centimeters) long, moving inside the shell; we can also see its eyes! By weighing and candling during the incubation period, we can make sure that the embryo is progressing normally, and if it isn’t, we can prepare to offer help if and when it is needed.

If all goes well during incubation, and the egg begins the hatching process, we carefully switch it with the dummy egg while the parents are out in the flight pen eating or sunning. They usually don’t even realize we switched eggs on them; they just return to their incubation duties.

As previously mentioned, both the male and female condor take turns sitting on the egg. An incubation bout may only last a few minutes before the parent gets off of the egg and leaves the nest box, or it may sit for the whole day. When the parents take turns on the egg, we call it a nest exchange. Sometimes a nest exchange is immediate: one parent enters the nest, and the other parent gets off of the egg and leaves. Other times, a nest exchange may be long, leaving the egg unattended for up to 30 minutes while the parents are outside eating, bathing, sunning, or socializing. During a long nest exchange, the egg cools down, but not usually enough to endanger the egg, especially with successful and experienced parents like Sisquoc and Shatash. Many times both parents are in the nest area—one may perch in the nearby roost while the other sits on the egg—seemingly keeping each other company.

During nesting season, California condors can be surprisingly territorial and defensive of their nest. Usually, they are very mild-mannered and calm, but when they have a precious egg or chick in the area, they defend it. One of the field biologists in California reported a pair of condors swooping and chasing a black bear away from their nest! Despite being very tough and strong birds, they can be very gentle when it comes to caring for their egg or their chick.

Keep checking in on Condor Cam to follow the progress of Sisquoc and Shatash’s egg and eventual chick!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, A New Egg on Condor Cam.

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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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Saticoy Flies into the Wild!

Saticoy (purple #36) receives his transmitters before his release.

Saticoy (purple #36) receives his transmitters before his release. Photo credit: Devon Lang Pryor, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

We have some exciting news: Saticoy, everybody’s favorite California condor who hatched and grew up on the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Condor Cam in 2012, has finally been released to fly free in the wild! Saticoy was the first California condor to hatch, on March 10, 2012, while thousands of excited viewers watched live on Condor Cam. His parents (father Sisquoc and mother Shatash) did an amazing job raising him for over five months until he left the nest.

On April 11, 2013, we transported him to the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge in southern California with two other young condors to be socialized in a pen before being released. The young birds were kept in this flight pen throughout the summer and into the autumn so that they could become familiar with their surroundings before they were released. They were able to acclimatize to the weather and wind. Also, the 60+ other condors already flying free in this region were allowed to meet the new, young release candidates through the flight pen’s wire. When the young birds were released, they weren’t complete strangers to the free-flying residents.

The two condors who accompanied Saticoy from the Safari Park (Nechuwa, #637, and Sukilamu, #643) were the first two birds released from the flight pen. They were released on October 22, 2013. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service field biologists observed these two for a while to make sure they were socializing well into the wild flock before releasing any of the other young birds. After these two youngsters were okay, it was Saticoy’s turn.

Saticoy feeds at a carcass with other condors; one is Sukilamu (purple #43), another Safari Park condor.

Saticoy feeds at a carcass with other wild condors. Photo credit: Devon Lang Pryor, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Saticoy (#636) and a young female (#628) from the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho (another of our valuable partners in the California Condor Recovery Program) were released together on November 20, 2013, and flew away from the flight pen. Then some bad weather hit the area for the next two days. By November 23, 2013, the fog had cleared, and the sun was shining. That afternoon, both #628 and Saticoy had found their way back to the flight pen and began feeding with the free-flying condors. One of the field biologists said that the two young condors may have set a record in returning to the release site and fitting in with the wild birds so quickly!

Saticoy was also observed perching and roosting in big snag trees with other birds those first few days. Usually, the field biologists find newly released birds on the ground or perched in small trees or shrubs before they make it up to the roost snags.

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 Safari Park (including all of the condors!) thank you so much. It appears that Saticoy is off to a great start at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge and is learning his way around. We couldn’t be happier for him!

Many thanks to Devon Lang Pryor, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Biological Science technician, for providing us with an update and photos of the release!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, The Condors Next Door.

1

The Condors Next Door

Pshan rubs his head on the roosting platform next to Towich.

Screenshot: Pshan rubs his head on the nest ledge next to Towich.

Normally, at this time of the year, Condor Cam viewing is a little slow. The chick has been moved to our socialization pen in preparation for eventual release to the wild and the parents, Sisquoc and Shatash, won’t start their breeding season until late October/early November. But this year is different! Sisquoc and Shatash’s neighbors are still raising their chick, and we were able to shift the Condor Cam pen camera to peek in on them.

The male is this pair is Towich (pronounced TOH-witch) and the female is Sulu (SOO-loo). Towich is wearing yellow wing tags, numbered 135; 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 recaptured and 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 spend the rest of its life in a cage.

Sulu hatched at the San Diego Zoo 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 chick they are raising this year is Pshan (Puh-SHAWN), and he is 144 days old (as of September 17, 2013). Towich and Sulu are not Pshan’s biological parents, though. Towich and Sulu’s egg was needed at the Los Angeles Zoo this year, so we delivered it to that zoo before hatching. It hatched under a different pair of condors and will eventually be released somewhere in California. Now that Towich and Sulu were without an egg, we had the opportunity to give them a different egg, one that we were planning on raising using a condor puppet. One of our condor pairs is not very good at sharing nesting duties and often squabbles over chicks when they hatch. Therefore, to ensure the safety of the chick, we don’t let that pair parent-rear anymore. Pshan is the chick that hatched from the egg fostered to Towich and Sulu. 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.

Like Sisquoc and Shatash, Towich and Sulu have done an exemplary job in raising their chick. Pshan hatched April 27, 2013, and is about a month younger than Cuyamaca. He is starting to come out onto the nest ledge more often. By the end of the month, he should be ready to fledge, or leave the nest. At that point, he will receive his wing tag and be moved to the socialization pen to be introduced to Cuyamaca and the other chicks from this year.

Many Condor Cam viewers have requested photos of Cuyamaca in her new pen. We, hopefully, will be posting some soon. She is handling the socialization process like a champ.

Also, we received word from the field biologists at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge recently. Saticoy, the Condor Cam chick from last season (and Cuyamaca’s older brother), has not been released to the wild yet. He is doing very well in the pre-release pen and should be flying free by the end of September! When this happens, we’ll let you know and, we hope, will have some pictures to show you, too.

Have fun with Towich, Sulu, and Pshan!

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

11

Moving Day for Condor Cuyamaca

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!

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Condor Chick has Fledged!

Perhaps one day Cuyamaca will be flying free.

Perhaps one day Cuyamaca will be flying free.

We have now switched camera views for the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Condor Cam. As faithful viewers, you have been able to watch our California condor chick, Cuyamaca, hatch and grow in her nest box. Now, you are able to view her out in her flight pen with her parents, father Sisquoc and mother Shatash, because Cuyamaca has taken the next exciting step in her development: She has fledged!

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 pen, approximately 10 feet off the ground. When condor chicks fledge, they tend to be around 140 or 150 days old. The youngest bird to fledge here at the Safari Park was 123 days old. Cuyamaca left her nest for the first time at 136 days of age.

Our condor nest boxes are elevated: they’re 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 (45 centimeters) 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 (2.4 meters) off the ground. There is a 5-inch-diameter (12 centimeters) 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 if they desire.

Late in the day on August 8, Cuyamaca was out on the ledge with her parents. She was nudged off the ledge by one of them, and she flew a short distance into the pen and landed on the ground. She walked around the pen for a few hours, investigating her new environment. She was able to get up on an 8-foot-tall stump perch, and she stayed there for a little while. Sisquoc later joined her and moved her to a large olive tree, where he and Shatash like to perch. She spent the night high in that olive tree with both of her parents roosting nearby, keeping a watchful eye on her.

In the morning, Cuyamaca hopped down to the ground and continued to investigate the pen. Again, Sisquoc accompanied her. He steered her toward the pool, and she took a drink of water for the first time. Until then, she had gotten all of her water from her parents and the food that they brought to the nest for her. Then, she started to play in the shallow part of the pool, taking her first brief bath. A short time later, she wandered over to the shift pen, a small side pen where we leave food for Sisquoc and Shatash. Sisquoc joined her here as well, and he picked up large pieces of beef spleen for her to nibble on. (For those who remember, Shatash performed the same sort of duties for their chick from last year, Saticoy.)

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 their nest!

With this new camera view, you’ll be able to see the roost area, most of the perches in the pen, the feeding area (shift pen), shade areas created by plants, and the pool. The view is wide, so detail is a bit harder to discern. Also, we do minimal maintenance in the pen, 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 Cuyamaca to humans, which would desensitize 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 San Diego Zoo or the Safari Park, but Sisquoc and Shatash prefer it that way if it means we stay away from their precious chick!

If, by chance, you don’t see Cuyamaca out in the pen, she could be resting in the shade of the roost, or she may have hopped back into the nest box. This is completely normal. The adult condors do the same thing. Just give her a little time; she’ll come back out into view later. We have a great volunteer staff that moves the camera for the nest box view, but we keepers move the camera when it is the pen view. We’ll do our best to zoom in to give you a good view of her when we can, but we are not always near the camera controls when we are taking care of the other condors.

So what’s next for Cuyamaca? 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. Sometime in the fall, Cuyamaca 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. In the meantime, it will be decided whether she will be a candidate for release to the wild (and where) or held back for the captive breeding program. I’ll keep you informed when this happens. Until then, please continue to keep checking in on our big girl.

The interest and enthusiasm over the hatch and growth of Cuyamaca have been wonderful. We really appreciate all of the comments and questions we have received throughout her development. Thanks again for all of your 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: Nest Barrier.

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Condor Chick: Nest Barrier

Condor chick Cuyamaca as seen on Condor Cam

Condor chick Cuyamaca as seen on Condor Cam

One of my favorite sayings is “boring is good.” When things are boring, everything is going according to plan; excitement is often the result of something going awry. As many Condor Cam viewers have experienced, the rearing process for a California condor can be long and slow—some may even say boring. It makes sense, though, for a condor to develop so slowly; she has lots of growing to do! When our chick, Cuyamaca, hatched, 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! I, myself, have only increased my birth weight by 19 times.

On July 15, at 112 days of age, Cuyamaca 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. In the meantime, hopping up and down from the barrier will exercise her muscles and improve her balance. Any day now, she will hop into the roost area on the other side of the barrier. Here, she can look into the flight pen where her parents, Sisquoc and Shatash, are. She also will be able to warm herself in the sun, if she so chooses.

The next step of Cuyamaca’s development will be to fledge. When she is ready, she will jump off of the 8-foot-tall (2.4 meters) 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.

The parents tend to be very vigilant at this phase of their chick’s development. It could appear over-protective 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 their 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 Cuyamaca learns this from her parents, the better she will assimilate into a wild population after she is released. Don’t worry—Sisquoc and Shatash won’t let Cuyamaca 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.

Depending on Cuyamaca’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 Sisquoc and Shatash 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 Cuyamaca’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: Exercising Those Wings.

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Condor Chick: Wing Exercise

Cuyamaca nibbles a parent's toe at that elusive edge.

Cuyamaca nibbles a parent’s toe at that elusive edge.

With her new, long wing feathers, California condor chick Cuyamaca is exercising her wings more often in the form of strong flapping. You will notice on Condor Cam that, as her wings gain more surface area, she will be able to lift her body off of the nest floor. She won’t be able to fly, but she’ll be a step closer. Plus, her legs are getting stronger and more coordinated, allowing her to jump higher. We expect her to be able to jump up onto the entry barrier of the nest box any day now. This usually happens between 90 and 110 days of age (June 23 to July 13). It could be earlier or later, as each chick develops at a different rate.

The barrier is 18 inches (45 centimeters) tall, so if she can jump up onto it, it’s not a long fall if she slips. Usually, the chicks are strong enough to jump down without slipping. Hopping up and down from the nest barrier exercises Cuyamaca’s wings, and perching on it helps improve her balance. She may even sleep on top of the barrier! From the barrier, Cuyamaca will be able to hop back into her nest, if she wants to, or she can hop into the adjoining roost area, of which most can be viewed via the Condor Cam. While out in the roost, she can 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. Cuyamaca 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 30 years of raising California condors here at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, we have never seen a chick fall from its nest area prematurely.

Cuyamaca will fledge, or leave the nest, on her own terms. When she is ready, she will either jump to the floor of her flight pen or fly from the roost ledge to one of the perches in the pen. We have seen chicks do both: clumsily and tentatively parachute to the ground or gracefully fly all the way across the pen and land next to the parents. Chicks have fledged as early as 123 days of age and as late as 165 days. We consider them fledged when they perch up off of the ground while out in the pen. In future blog entries, I will explain what to expect once Cuyamaca fledges, as well as what is in store for her if she is released to the wild.

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