California Condors

California Condors

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As Yun Zi discovered in 2010, a new location can deliver better views!

As Yun Zi discovered in 2010, a new location can deliver better views!

We’re excited to announce a new home for stories and updates about the animals and conservation work of San Diego Zoo Global: the ZOONOOZ website!  For the first time, the amazing stories, photos, and videos that have only been available via our printed magazine and app will be available to just about everyone. Anyone with a web browser—on any device—can enjoy the fun, interesting, and informative tales we share.

Blogs published in 2015 have been re-homed at the new location, and this site will continue to exist as an archive of past years’ stories and information.

The search function on the new site will help you find stories about the species you particularly enjoy reading about, but we encourage everyone to explore and scroll through the topic headings—you’re sure to discover some new favorites!

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Moving Day for Antiki

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Antiki has moved into the socialization pen. She’s wearing a white wing tag number 77.

October can be a busy month at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Condor Breeding Facility. This is the time of the year when we start to prepare for the next breeding season: clean nests, conduct routine health exams, and provide 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. But before we can start anything, we need to move the recently-fledged chicks to their new home— our socialization pen.

Our remote socialization pen is approximately one mile from the main part of the Safari Park. There, this year’s Condor Cam chick, Antiki, is 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 Antiki’s right wing for identification purposes. She is now wearing wing tag White 77. She is now sharing this large pen with five other condors:

  • Xananan (ha-NA-nan): Female, 11 years old, wearing tag Blue 21 (left wing).
  • Sunan (SOO-nahn): Female, 1 ½ years old, wearing tag Blue 49 (right wing).
  • Eeuukey (ee-YOO-kee): Male, 6 months old, wearing tag Blue 84 (right wing).
  • Pali (PAH-lee): Male, 6 months old, wearing tag Yellow 96 (right wing).
  • Uqushtay (oo-KOOSH-tay): Female, 6 months old, wearing tag Red 97 (right wing).

Antiki, Eeuukey, Pali, and Uqushtay have been getting to know each other in an adjacent pen. On October 22, we opened the gate into the large pen where they were able to meet the older birds, Xananan and Sunan.

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. The only time the birds see us is during a medical procedure: affixing wing tags, 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.

One of Antiki’s new pen-mates has a very important role. Xananan, the adult, is acting as the young birds’ new “mentor.” 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, the chicks’ “education” will be furthered by Xananan. 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 in order to be successful in the wild.

Viewers of last year’s Condor Cam will probably remember Sunan. She was raised on camera by her foster parents, Towich (TOE-witch) and Sulu (SOO-loo). Sunan seemed to be a little smaller than her pen-mates and more subordinate. It was decided, as a precaution, to keep her here at the Safari Park for one more year before releasing her to the wild in order to give her more time and experience with different birds. So, the good news is that her fans get more Sunan-viewing time!

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, Antiki is integrating well into the group. She has been seen eating near the older birds; she seems to be a very confident girl! She flies very well in the pen and interacts appropriately with her new pen-mates. Her parents, Sisquoc and Shatash, have done a great job preparing her for the big, wide world! As time passes, we should see the whole group settling in, perching, and feeding together. Feel free to post any comments or questions, and we’ll try to get them answered as soon as we can. Enjoy!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous blog, Fledged!

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Fledged!

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Although she occasionally ducks into the nest box area, Antiki now spends most of her time practicing her flying skills outside.

We have switched the camera view of the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Condor Cam. Our faithful viewers have been able to watch our California condor chick, Antiki, hatch and grow in her nest box, but now they can view her out in her flight pen with her parents, father Sisquoc and mother Shatash, because she’s taken the next exciting step in her development—Antiki has fledged!

Fledging is the process in which a young bird leaves the nest. We consider a California condor chick to be fledged when they 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. Antiki flew for the first time at 156 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 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 eight feet off of the ground. There is a five-inch-diameter pole leaning from the ground to the ledge; we call this the “pole ladder.” The condors can walk up or down this pole ladder to get to or from the nest. They can, of course, fly to the nest as well if they desire.

For a few weeks, Antiki was able to walk down the pole ladder to start exploring the flight pen. She would watch Sisquoc and Shatash eat, sometimes begging for them to feed her, sometimes playing tug-of-war trying to take food from them. She also got to drink from the pool for the first time. She would climb up onto an eight-foot-tall stump perch and up into the olive tree in the pen. She started to spend the night out in the pen, perched up in the tree, under the watchful eyes of her parents.

We still had not seen her actually fly to any of the perches, though, until September 13. That morning, after being warmed by the sun, she took a short flight from the olive tree to join Sisquoc on one of the 10-foot-tall perches. After that, she could deftly fly from perch to perch like a pro! Since that morning, Antiki spends the majority of the time out in the pen, sometimes returning to sit in the shade of the roost.

When condor chicks fledge in the wild, it can be a long process as well. They will 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 develop their abilities before embarking on such a dangerous venture. Mom and dad are always present to escort or protect the chicks. 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 Antiki 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 Safari Park or the Zoo, 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 Antiki 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 as we are also taking care of the other condors.

So what’s next for Antiki? 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 act aggressively towards the chick if they try to nest again. Sometime in this fall, Antiki will be removed from her parents, so they can prepare for the next breeding season. She will be introduced to other birds her age in a group with an adult bird that acts 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 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.

Everyone’s interest and enthusiasm over the hatch and growth of Antiki 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 blog, One Step Closer to Fledging.

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One Step Closer To Fledging

Antiki has moved out of the nest box, spending her time on the ledge outside where her parents groom and feed her.

Antiki has moved out of the nest box and is spending her days on the ledge outside where her parents groom and feed her.

As many Condor Cam viewers have experienced, the rearing process for a California condor can be long and slow. It makes sense, though, for a condor to develop so slowly. She has lots of growing to do. When our chick, Antiki, hatched, she weighed approximately 6.35 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 August 6, at 118 days of age, Antiki 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 later hopped back into her nest, but that’s OK. There’s no hurry to fledge, or leave the nest, just yet. Her feathers still need time to fill in all of the way. In the meantime, hopping up and down from the barrier will exercise her muscles, as well as improve her balance. On August 11, she hopped into the roost area on the other side of the barrier for the first time. Here, she can warm herself in the sun, if she so chooses. While out in the roost, she can also rest or sleep in the shade, perch with her parents (if they are not perched out in the flight pen), or step out to the roost ledge to soak up the sun’s rays for the first time. The ledge is about 8 feet 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. Antiki 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 33 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.

The next step of Antiki’s development will be to fledge. When she is ready, she will jump off of the 8-foot-high 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 might 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 that it 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 they will 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 Antiki 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 Antiki 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 Antiki’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 and into 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 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 Antiki’s story will be far from over!

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

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Condor Chick: Getting Big!

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There she grows! Antiki is feathering out nicely.

Antiki, our California condor chick featured on this year’s San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Condor Cam, is now over 100 days old and starting to get her “big bird” feathers! As many of our regular viewers have noticed, her flight feathers are growing in. Some of the first feathers that start to grow are the wing feathers. It is easy to see the feathers growing through the chick’s down—the down feathers are gray, but the new flight feathers are black. The long feathers that grow from the tip of the wing are called “primary feathers” and the feathers from the wrist to the armpit are “secondary feathers.” Primary and secondary feathers are the giant feathers that make the California condor’s wing so large and impressive; an adult can have a wingspan of up to 9 ½ feet! We are estimating our chick’s wingspan to be around 5 feet right now—between the size of a red-tailed hawk’s and a bald eagle’s. Her tail feathers are also starting to grow. They’re a little harder to see on camera, but you should be able to spot them soon.

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

The chick had her second health exam on June 25 during which our veterinary staff were able to administer her second, and final, West Nile virus inoculation. A blood sample was obtained and she weighed in at 13 pounds, 7 ounces (6.1 kilograms), over half of her projected adult weight. Even though our little girl is getting big, she still has room to grow!

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

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

There have been many questions regarding the chick being able to jump up on the nest box barrier. She hasn’t jumped up yet, but she may soon. Stay tuned for our next blog that will discuss this next big milestone!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous blog, Say Hello to Antiki!

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Say Hello to Antiki!

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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.