California Condors

California Condors

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Say Hello to Antiki!

Caption

Tests show our Condor Cam chick is a female. Watching Condor Cam shows she seems to be wondering what’s on the other side of that ledge!


The results are in: Our California condor chick being raised on Condor Cam at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is a female. Her name is “Antiki” (pronounced “an-TEE-kee”), a Chumash word that means “to recover, get well.” She is the seventeenth chick produced by parents Sisquoc and Shatash, and is the seventh that they have raised themselves, including the 2012 and 2013 Condor Cam stars: Saticoy (now flying free in southern California) and Cuyamaca (currently soaring free in Arizona). The pair’s other offspring were raised by keepers using a condor puppet so the chicks wouldn’t imprint on their human caretakers. Overall, Sisquoc and Shatash have proven to be great and reliable parents.

Some viewers have worried about the amount of time that Antiki spends alone in the nest—that she might be getting lonely. Yet, it’s important to look at the situation from a condor “point of view,” using what we know about their natural history.

California condors naturally have a one-egg clutch; in other words, there is never more than one chick in a nest. Although the chicks may appear lonely to us, we need to keep in mind that their social requirements are much different from ours. Of course, a human would be lonely being raised in isolation, but condors thrive in that situation. There is no competition from nest mates (ensuring plenty of food for growth), the single chick receives plenty of attention, preening, and protection from both parents (facilitating the proper social skills for when it’s time to leave the nest) and there is less waste that accumulating in the nest (reducing the possibilities for nest parasite infestation).

Sisquoc and Shatash visit Antiki several times a day for feeding and social interaction, giving her everything that she needs. If she was in distress, it would manifest in improper growth and unusual behaviors. She is in perfect health and showing excellent behaviors for a release candidate of this age, indicating that Sisquoc and Shatash are doing a textbook job!

We do not offer her “toys” or enrichment items, as her parents have provided several items in the nest to explore or play with: feathers, dried food items/bones, or cast hair pellets. We have seen Antiki (as well as every other condor that has been raised at the Safari Park) play with, sleep on, and re-distribute these items around the nest. Field observations have shown that chicks in wild nests in California, Arizona, and Mexico behave in the exact same manner. We don’t want to provide any unnaturally occurring items in the nest as playthings as this could encourage her to seek out similar items after she is released to the wild, possibly putting her in harm’s way. Remember, we are trying to foster behaviors that wild condors should have–avoiding human activity and hazardous, artificial situations. Survival rates for condors that become accustomed to humans and human activity are very low.

We are preparing for Antiki’s second health exam this week; it is usually scheduled when the chick is approximately 75 days old. Enjoy watching our little girl grow up and stay tuned for more updates!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous blog, Condor Cam Chick’s First Health Exam.

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Condor Cam Chick’s First Health Exam

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The Condor Cam chick is currently about the size of a bowling ball!

 

On Tuesday, May 26, our California condor chick received its first health exam. We normally conduct this exam at around 45 days of age. 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 parents—father Sisquoc and mother Shatash—don’t want any invaders in the nest and do their best to defend the chick and keep it safe, as all good parents will do. Adjacent to the flight pen, we have a shift pen. Shift pens are used to safely and calmly move large or dangerous animals from one area to another. Other animals at the Safari Park that are moved with shift pens include lions, gorillas, bighorn sheep, and others. That’s why you never see any keepers in the exhibits at the same time with these animals. We offer all of the condors’ diet in the shift pen, so Sisquoc and Shatash are very comfortable entering this spot for every meal. On the day of the exam, we shifted Sisquoc into the pen and kept him there until after the health check was completed. From the 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.

Shatash was not shifted, but instead was able to see us go into her nest. We posted one keeper in the nest entryway to keep Shatash out, while another keeper entered the nest and covered the little chick with a towel. This is the first time that the 46-day-old chick had ever seen a person, and it was understandably nervous and defensive—hissing and lunging at the intruder. Yet 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 veterinary staff was waiting.

First, the veterinarian obtained a blood sample from the chick’s leg. This sample will be sent to the lab to make sure that the chick is healthy. Also, our geneticists at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research can use the sample to determine if the chick is male or female.

Next, a vaccine for West Nile virus was administered. West Nile virus is disease that originated in Africa and was accidentally introduced to North America by humans. North American animals, including condors, usually don’t have a natural immune response to West Nile Virus, so we are trying to give the chicks as much of a head start as we can.

Then a microchip was injected under the chick’s skin. This chip is a form of identification, the same kind you can get for your dog or cat at the veterinarian.

The veterinarian then 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 approximately 16 minutes.

Once the exam was over, the chick was returned to the nest and Shatash was allowed to approach and check on her baby. As previously mentioned, 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 in 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 defensive posture, hissing at everything it saw, even its mother. Shatash 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 Shatash. With everyone appearing calmer, Sisquoc was let out of his shift pen. Approximately five minutes later, he approached the nest to peek in on the chick and then returned to the shift pen to eat some more. Afterwards, he went back to the nest and fed the chick.

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 looked great; the chick’s eyes and nares were clear, the feet, legs and wings were solid, and vitality was very strong. The chick weighed  7 pounds (3.16 kilograms) and was approximately 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 blog, California Condor Chick: 30 to 45 days of Age.

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California Condor Chick: 30 to 45 Days of Age

A Condor Cam screen capture of the fluffy, growing chick.

This Condor Cam screen capture shows the California condor chick to be developing nicely.

At approximately one month of age, our California condor chick should weigh around 4 pounds (2 kilograms). The parents, Sisquoc and Shatash, may start leaving the chick alone overnight, sleeping near the nest instead of in it. If the weather is still cool or it’s 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. Some field biologists have even seen wild condor parents chasing black bears away from the nest area!

Up until now, the chick has been scooting around the nest on its tarsal joints. We refer to that as a “tarsal crawl.” It’s not uncommon, at this age, to see the chick standing all the way up on its feet, teetering around the nest, holding its wings out for balance. As its legs get sturdier, the chick may even approach the parent, begging for food. The “wing-begging” behavior we’ve been seeing will get more pronounced: lots of wing flapping, head bobbing, and trying to position itself in front of the parent.

It is possible that the parents, who are offering larger quantities of food per feeding session, might be providing a small amount of fur/hair in the chick’s diet. (Part of the adults’ diet includes mammals, like rats and rabbits.) Condors can digest just about every part of the animals they eat, except for fur. This fur accumulates in the digestive tract and is eventually regurgitated as waste. We refer to this as “casting.” A condor’s cast is composed of predominantly fur, whereas a cast from an owl has fur and bones; owls can’t digest bones, but condors can. We have seen condor chicks cast hair pellets as young as three weeks of age. When the chick casts, it throws its head forward several times, mouth open, until the pellet is ejected from its mouth. It can look like the chick is in trouble, but it is perfectly normal, and good for the chick.

At 45 days of age, the chick will get its first health exam. We will obtain a blood sample for the lab to make sure it is healthy and send a portion of this sample to a lab in the Genetics Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, located adjacent to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. From this blood sample, the geneticists can determine if the chick is male or female. Also, during the exam, we will weigh the chick—it should weigh between 7.75 to 8.75 pounds (3.5 – 4 kilograms)—and inject a transponder chip as a form of identification. It’s the same kind of chip you can get for your dog or cat at the veterinarian. Most importantly, this exam allows us to administer a vaccine for West Nile Virus. West Nile Virus is disease that originated in Africa and was accidently introduced to North America by humans. North American wildlife, including condors, usually doesn’t have a natural immune response to West Nile Virus, so we are trying to give the chicks as much of a head start as we can.

This exam will be the first time that the chick will see humans, so it will naturally be disturbing for it. We try to be as quick as we can be (9 to 10 minutes) to minimize the disturbance. Additionally, we will keep the chick covered with a towel to reduce its exposure to humans and to provide it a bit of security. Sisquoc and Shatash are usually away from the nest when we perform the procedure in order to keep them as calm as possible, as well. We have to keep in mind that we don’t want the chick to become accustomed to or feel reassured by our presence; 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.

The chick will look very large at this age compared to how big it was at hatch, but remember that it is still less than half of its adult weight. There is much more growth and fun to come!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous blog, Guide to Condor-chick Watching: Ages 1 Week to 1 Month.

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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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California Condors: Little Things, Big Effects

Condors have excellent vision, but some threats are too small for even these birds to see.

Condors have excellent vision, but some threats are too small for even these birds to see.

In spring of 2011, I served as a summer research fellow at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Here I learned that I could contribute to the conservation of endangered species in a way I never dreamed possible: on a molecular level! To say this was a stretch for me is an understatement. Freshman year of undergrad I distinctly remember the shock when I was handed back my first BIO 101 exam: it was the first “D” I ever received at any time as a student. I turned to my friend and proclaimed, “I will NEVER work with something I cannot see,” (referencing biological materials such as DNA, RNA, and proteins), conclusively announcing “All I want to do is work with animals.”

Despite my initial frustration, I stuck with the biology major, tagged on an animal science minor, and got a keeper internship at my local zoo. The internship turned into a part-time job working hands-on with exotic animals, a dream come true! While zookeeping was a very gratifying job, reproductive physiology had caught my attention not only in the classroom but through my experience at the zoo. I was amazed at how reproductive techniques such as semen collection, artificial insemination, and hormone monitoring could inform animal managers and scientists of a broader picture not always seen by the naked eye. My interest and enthusiasm landed me an internship in the Reproductive Physiology Division at the Institute and, eventually, a permanent position as a research technician. We work on traditional gamete preservation, hormone monitoring, and the exciting new field in the zoo world: environmental toxicology. This research combines molecular techniques and endocrinology to explore the effects of chemicals found in the environment on the development and reproduction of captive and wild animals.

I am now a graduate from the University of Missouri’s animal science master’s program with a thesis describing the molecular interactions of environmental chemicals and hormone receptors of a critically endangered species, the California condor. Needless to say, I have changed my stance on working with biological materials that are not visible to the naked eye!

HEK cells (seen here at 100 times their actual size) are used as concor receptor factories to study the effects of environmental contaminants on reproduction. Photo by Rachel Felton

HEK cells (seen here at 100 times their actual size) are used as condor receptor factories to study the effects of environmental contaminants on reproduction.

In the Lab
In my previous post DDT: Another Challenge for California Condor, I explained our first investigations of the effects of environmental chemicals on California condor reproduction. In the lab, we were able to develop an assay to screen condor estrogen receptors (ERs) with chemicals found circulating in the blood of condors living along California’s coast to detect activation of these hormone receptors. Determining which chemicals mimic (activate ERs) or block (deactivate ERs) signaling of the endogenous hormone estrogen will be an important step in better understanding the endocrine-disrupting potential of chemicals found in the condor’s coastal environment.

Chemical concentrations circulating in condor blood activated condor estrogen receptors in the lab. This discovery lead us to speculate that in the wild, coastal condors are being exposed to levels of chemicals that may cause developmental and/or reproductive harm. The chemical load in condors today is similar to that found in other birds of prey along the California coast such as the bald eagle and peregrine falcon. These species have experienced eggshell thinning in the past. Unfortunately, eggshell thinning is already compromising the coastal condor population.

Relocating California condors to coastline habitats reduces chances of lead poisoning but may pose other risks.

Relocating California condors to coastline habitats reduces chances of lead poisoning but may contain other, unseen threats.

In the Field
What does this mean for free-flying condors? The cliffs along the Southern California coast may not be the ideal escape from the threats of lead poisoning. If chronic exposure and the production of thin eggshells continue in the population, there is the potential for long-term effects since coastal condors are sensitive at the molecular level to contaminants found in their diets. In Oregon and Washington, condor reintroduction was put on hold due to elevated levels of chemicals in the blubber of marine mammals.

In Baja California, Mexico, the wild condor population may have to be moved to the coast of Mexico. Conservation managers are hoping to wean condors off expensive supplemental feedings and toward a diet composed of beached marine mammals. But before relocation of this population occurs, chemical compositions of beached marine mammals at the potential release sites will be evaluated in the lab for endocrine-disrupting capabilities. Our goal is to move condors away from lead and intensive management practices, but not into another health-compromising situation.

Rachel Felton is a senior research technician at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

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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.