California Condors

California Condors


Condor Chick: Getting Big!

Papa Sisquoc watches as Cuyamaca stretches a wing.

Papa Sisquoc watches as Cuyamaca stretches a wing.

The results are in: Cuyamaca, our California condor chick featured on this year’s Condor Cam, is a girl! She is now over 100 days old and is 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 Cuyamaca’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 9½ feet (3 meters)! We are estimating Cuyamaca’s wingspan to be around 5 feet (1.5 meters) right now, between the wingspan of a red-tailed hawk and a bald eagle. Her tail feathers are also starting to grow. They’re a little harder to see on camera, but you should be able to spot them soon.

After the wing and tail feathers fill in, the feathers on Cuyamaca’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, Cuyamaca will still have lots of gray down showing, making it easy to differentiate her from her parents. Eventually, her light-colored skin will turn dark gray or black and be covered with fine, fuzzy feathers, but this won’t happen until well after she leaves the nest. Her skin will stay dark until she reaches maturity at six years and turns pink-orange, just like her parents, Sisquoc and Shatash.

Cuyamaca had her second health exam on June 10 (see post Condor Chick: 1st Exam), during which our veterinary staff administered her second, and final, West Nile virus inoculation. A blood sample was obtained, and she weighed 14 pounds (6.4 kilograms), over half of her projected adult weight. Even though our little girl is getting big, she still has room to grow!

At the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, the adult condors normally are fed four days per week. 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 2 to 3 pounds (1 to 1.3 kilograms) of food per bird per feeding day. When the condors are raising a chick, we offer extra food every day: 1 rat, 1.5 pounds (0.6 kilograms) of beef spleen, 1 trout, and 8 ounces (227 grams) 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 Cuyamaca is eating each day, but we estimate that she could be eating 1.5 to 2.5 pounds (0.6 to 1.3 kilograms) of food per day.

Many Condor Cam viewers have seen some rough-looking interactions between Cuyamaca and her parents. What may have been happening was a form of discipline. As Cuyamaca gets bigger, her begging displays and efforts get more vigorous. These efforts can sometimes be bothersome or problematic for parents who just want some peace and quiet. The parents have two ways to make sure 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 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 the chick. 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.

My next post will include information about Cuyamaca exercising her wings.

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


Condor Saticoy at Release Site

Condors Nechuwa, Sukilamu, and Saticoy take in the view.

Saticoy (far right) and his fellows are acclimating to their new home in the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge.

Some of our devoted condor fans have been asking about Saticoy, the California condor chick who hatched and was raised by his parents while on the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Condor Cam last year. For those who are new to Condor Cam, Saticoy is the older sibling to this year’s chick, Cuyamaca.

On April 11, Saticoy was transported to his release site with two other condors who hatched at the Safari Park last year, Nechuwa and Sukilamu. These three young males are being housed in the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge in a flight pen with a wonderful view of the quiet, wide-open spaces of the Refuge. Beautiful wildflowers growing all over the grassy, rolling hills lead to the canyons and mountains that provide prime condor nesting habitat. The Refuge is located just north of Santa Barbara in southern California’s Kern County.

The flight pen is visited by curious condor neighbors.

The flight pen acts as a hacking site, or a place where the young birds become familiar with their surroundings before they are released to the wild. They can acclimatize to the weather and wind. Also, there are 66 other condors flying free in this region, and many of them frequent the hillside where the flight pen is located. This allows the resident condors to meet the new, young release candidates; when the young birds are released, they won’t be complete strangers to the free-flying condors. When we put Saticoy (wearing wing tag #36), Nechuwa (wing tag #37), and Sukilamu (wing tag #43) in the flight pen, four wild condors were already watching from the outside, curious about their new neighbors.

Saticoy and his pen mates will stay in the flight pen through the summer. If all goes well, the field biologists will release them to the wild sometime in September, about 18 months after Saticoy’s hatch. As you can see, California condor development is a long and involved process!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Condor Chick: 1st Exam.


New Condor Chick in Mexico

Here's a look at the first wild condor chick in Mexico this year!

Here’s a look at the first wild condor chick in Mexico this year!

The great gift of working at the California condor field station in Baja California, Mexico, is that every single day is a day spent with nature. A typical day starts with a 7 a.m. breakfast and a pot of coffee, just like any day in the city. Unlike the city, however, we have no commute in traffic, we don’t have the luxury of a hot shower every morning, and we never quite know what the Sierra San Pedro Martir has prepared for us each day.

Nature can be full of surprises. On our daily hike to check on the condors we may meet a coyote or mule deer, see new flowers in bloom, catch a glimpse of a mountain lion running in the distance, or disturb a flock of mountain quail into flight. It is now in late spring that we have to be very alert about forest fires. Often, we find our roads blocked with fallen pine trees.

Juan rappels to the condors' nest.

Juan rappels to the condors’ nest.

The morning of May 15, 2013, was such a day, and after navigating around a fallen tree, Juan Vargas and I started our way down the canyon to complete a nest inspection. We were carrying the climbing gear necessary to rappel close to the entrance of the condor nest. Just halfway along the route, we saw a fire northwest of the mountain, and looking to the horizon saw a second fire north of the first one, stronger and more threatening. The wind was bringing smoke to us. Immediately, we communicated by radio with the park rangers so they could give a call to the fire fighters.

The chick looks healthy and well cared for.

The chick looks healthy and well cared for.

Arriving at the edge of the cliff, Juan built the anchors and prepared the ropes to climb down to the nest. In our safety gear, we started to rappel in silence. As we approached the nest, adult male condor #269 came out from inside the cave to protect the nest from intruders. I moved toward the condor to distract him from Juan, who climbed into the cave to find a lovely, fluffy wild chick. A quick physical check was made to determine the chick was healthy and doing fine. The male condor was not happy, and despite my body blocking his view, he watched Juan through the space between my legs. In a rush, the aggressive condor pushed through my legs toward Juan to attack him. Juan was on his knees with his back facing the entrance of the cave, and luckily he heard my yelling and moved swiftly out of the condor’s reach Two years ago, Juan wasn’t that lucky—that same male condor pecked his behind!

Father condor keeps a wary eye on the researchers in his nest.

Father condor keeps a wary eye on the researchers in his nest.

With the adult male condor back in the nest, Juan and I worked quickly to install a remote camera with a motion sensor to capture the frequency of the parents’ entries to the nest. This will enable us to learn more about condor parental behavior in the wild.

On our way back to the field station, we could see the fires were under control. Exhausted, we returned like proud parents and celebrated our discovery of a new wild chick (#710). Two chicks hatched in the wild in 2012 have now fledged and are integrating well with the adult population in Baja California. This chick represents our third healthy living wild California condor offspring as well as the first chick of 2013.

Mohamed Saad is a field biologist with San Diego Zoo Global’s partner, COSTA SALVAjE.


Condor Chick: 1st Exam

Cuyamaca continues to thrive at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

Cuyamaca continues to thrive at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

On Friday, May 10, our California condor chick Cuyamaca 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 Cuyamaca, the chick who can be viewed on our popular Condor Cam.

The first step in this process is to separate the parents from the chick. Of course, 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 do. Adjacent to the flight pen, we have a shift pen, used to safely and calmly move an animal from one area to another. We offer all of the condors’ diet in the shift pen, so Sisquoc and Shatash are very comfortable entering it for every meal. We shifted Sisquoc into the pen and kept him there until after the exam. From his shift pen, he cannot see the nest area, so he was unaware that we were even in his nest, thus keeping him very calm. He ate and waited patiently until he had access back into his flight pen.

Shatash was not shifted and 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 little Cuyamaca with a towel. This is the first time that Cuyamaca had ever seen a person and thus was understandably nervous and defensive, hissing and lunging at the intruder. Once under the cover of the towel, Cuyamaca could not see and calmed down. The chick was then brought into the adjoining vestibule where our veterinarian staff was waiting.

First, the veterinarian obtained a blood sample from Cuyamaca’s leg. This sample is sent to the lab to make sure the chick is healthy. Also, our geneticists can determine if Cuyamaca is male or female from this sample.

Next, a vaccine for West Nile virus was administered. Then a microchip was injected under Cuyamaca’s skin. This chip is a form of identification. It’s the same kind of chip you can get for your dog or cat from your veterinarian. The veterinarian then gave a quick health assessment, checking Cuyamaca’s eyes, nares (nostrils), beak, feet, legs, wings, and abdomen. Lastly, we weighed Cuyamaca 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 15 minutes.

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

For several minutes, Cuyamaca showed a defensive posture, hissing at everything it saw, even its mother. Shatash slowly approached her chick and nervously 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. About 10 minutes later, Cuyamaca 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 20 minutes after that, he also went in to feed Cuyamaca. If he was alerted to our presence and was upset, he would have immediately entered the nest to check on his chick.

So far, the health exam looks to have been successful. The blood work showed that Cuyamaca is healthy. The chick’s eyes and nares were clear, the feet, legs, and wings were solid, and vitality was very strong. Cuyamaca weighed 7.7 pounds (3.55 kilograms) and was approximately the size of a bowling ball. We have yet to receive the sex results from the Genetics Lab, but when we do, we’ll let you know if Cuyamaca is a male or a female.

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


Condor Chick Watching: Age 30 to 45 Days

Cuyamaca does some preening in the nest box.

Cuyamaca does some preening in the nest box.

At about one month of age, our California condor chick Cuyamaca (pronounced “Kwee-ah-MACK-ah” and meaning “through the clouds” in Kumeyaay), should weigh around 4.4 pounds (2 kilograms). The parents, Sisquoc and Shatash, may start leaving the chick alone overnight, sleeping near the nest. If the weather is still cool or it’s raining, they 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 around 45 days of age, Cuyamaca will get its first health exam. We will obtain a blood sample for the lab to make sure the chick 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. From this blood sample, the geneticists can determine if Cuyamaca is male or female. Also during the exam, we will weigh Cuyamaca (the chick should weigh between 7.7 and 8.8 pounds or 3.5 and 4 kilograms), and we will 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, a 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 our chicks as much of a head start as we can.

This exam will be the first time that Cuyamaca will see humans, so it will naturally be disturbing for the chick. We try to be as quick as we can (9 to 10 minutes) to minimize the disturbance. Additionally, we will keep Cuyamaca 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 to keep them as calm as possible, as well. We have to keep in mind that we don’t want Cuyamaca 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.

Cuyamaca 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 on Condor Cam!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Condor Chick Watching: Age 3 to 4 Weeks.


Condor Chick Watching: Age 3 to 4 Weeks

The chick feels safe in the corner of the nest box on April 16.

The chick feels safe in the corner of the nest box on April 16.

At 3 weeks of age and 42 to 52 ounces (1.2 to 1.5 kilograms), our California condor chick can start to thermoregulate, or control its own body temperature. This is when the parents can start leaving the chick on its own during the day. Depending on the ambient temperature, the chick may be seen shivering or panting in an effort to warm or cool itself. Also, on warm days, the chick may inflate the air sacs in its chin and neck to cool down. Air sac inflation can also occur after a particularly filling meal. Often, Sisquoc or Shatash may spend time in the nest with the chick, but they may not necessarily sit on the chick.

The chick is more mobile, scooting around the nest on its haunches, or tarsal joints. We refer to this as a tarsal crawl. It’s not quite standing up on its feet, but it can move about, following the parents and investigating different parts of the nest. You may see the chick start to gather items (feather, scraps of old food) from around the nest and move them to one corner. The chick likes to sit or sleep on this pile and play with the different items. These feathers and old food scraps are often brought to the nest by the parents. Birds replace their feathers through a process called molting, kind of like when mammals shed their hair/fur. We don’t know if the parents are bringing these items to the nest specifically for the chick or if it’s just happenstance, but the chick loves to investigate and play with them!

As the parents start leaving the chick alone for longer periods of time, it will be easier to watch the chick when it sleeps. Just like all growing youngsters, condor chicks sleep A LOT. With longer legs and gawky bodies, they often sprawl 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 3.9 pounds (1.8 kilograms). The parents may start leaving the chick alone overnight, sleeping near the nest. 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. I hope you continue to watch the chick grow on Condor Cam!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Condor Chick Watching: Age 2 to 3 Weeks.


Condor Chick Watching: Age 2 to 3 Weeks

The chick on April 12

The chick on April 12

At two to three weeks of age, the real fun of condor chick-viewing begins! The chick is getting bigger, weighing between 500 and 1,200 grams (1.1 and 2.6 pounds) and can often be seen poking its head out from under a parent’s wing. 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! They are nearby, often just out of Condor Cam’s view, 6 to 8 feet (1.8 to 2.4 meters) 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 now, so you may catch a glimpse of food being transferred from parent to chick. The chick’s crop (the bulge in the esophagus where food is stored) may be visible when it’s full. It is between the size of a golf ball and a tennis ball and is a bald patch of skin. You will also witness a very common behavior called wing begging: the chick begs for food by 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 to keep a bird cool or warm, whatever its body needs. At this stage, the chick’s white down is starting to transition to gray. Sometimes this can make the chick look dirty or scruffy, but it is still as healthy as it ever has been. Both chick and 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 recently were.

Some viewers have noted that the chick looks like it has scabs on its head/neck or has wounds on its body, matting its down feathers. This is actually regurgitated food stuck to its face or body. Feeding can be quite exciting for the chick, and some food doesn’t always end up in its mouth! The chick obviously can’t take a bath at this age, but the food dries up, gets crusty, and flakes off, a major benefit of having a bald head! If you’ve seen the big condors eat at Condor Ridge at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park or Elephant Odyssey at the San Diego Zoo, you 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!

Happy viewing, and thanks so much for your support!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Condor Chick Watching: Hatch to 1 Week.


Condor Chick Watching: Hatch to 1 Week

Shatash sits tight.

Shatash sits tight.

As many regular Condor Cam viewers witnessed, our California condor chick hatched on March 26, 2013, weighing around 180 grams (6.3 ounces). The hatching process can be grueling, so afterward, the chick usually rests a lot and is brooded (sat on) by the parents. We often call this sitting tight. The parents are providing protection and warmth, especially while the newly hatched chick is drying off.

Being weak and wobbly, the chick often is hard to feed, but that is okay. The chick is getting nutrients from the yolk sac that it absorbed into its belly just before hatching. After about a day, the chick can hold its head steady, and the parents then start providing food. They eat food we offer out in the flight pen, and then bring it to the chick in their crop (a bulge in their esophagus where they can store up to 3 pounds or 1.3 kilograms of food). The food is regurgitated for the chick, providing a warm and nutritious meal. Mmmmmmm!

The diet we provide varies, depending on the day, but it can include rabbits, rats, trout, beef spleen, and ground meat. While the chick is very young, it is often difficult to witness a feeding, since the parents are standing directly above the chick, blocking the camera’s view. If you see a parent slightly bobbing its head while standing over the chick, feeding is occurring. Feeding sessions are fairly short for small chicks, since their crop is only about the size of a lima bean.

Both California condor parents provide care for the chick. This drive is very strong, and it’s not uncommon to see the parents vying for time with the chick, especially immediately after hatching. This happens in the form of leaning into each other, pushing one’s way onto the chick; scooping the chick from one parent to the other; or nipping at neck skin or tugging at feathers to get the other parent to move. Usually, one parent acts more dominantly and controls the interactions a little more than the other parent. This time, mother Shatash took this dominant role, despite her being much smaller than Sisquoc. Other years, we’ve seen Sisquoc take this role. We interpret this periodic shift in dominance, and the other bird’s acceptance of this shift, as a very good trait in a condor pair. As time passes after hatch, they settle into a routine, and the nest exchanges become much calmer.

One viewer concern was the number of times the chick was stepped on by the parents. In many species, ranging from hummingbirds to elephants, babies get slightly squished by a parent. Usually, it’s just a minor misstep, and the baby lets the parent know with a brief vocalization. Condors are no different or no more fragile. They are very hearty little chicks! As young as four days of age, we have seen chicks sifting through the sand in the nest, picking up items on their own. We’ve even seen chicks swallowing small pieces of its eggshell for dietary calcium.

At the end of the condor chick’s first week of life it weighs around 10.5 ounces (300 grams). It is getting much stronger but is not venturing around the nest very much yet. Coordination is improving, and we can witness social interactions with the parents: nibbling, preening, and nuzzling. Every once in a while, you may see the chick quivering, almost like it has the hiccups. It is actually vocalizing. Condors don’t have a true voice box, or syrinx, like other birds, but they can make crude, primitive vocalizations. Adults may grunt, wheeze, or hiss. Chicks can make a high-pitched, scraping squawk, usually when begging or out from under the parents for too long.

The next few weeks of development are very exciting, not just for the condor family, but for any of us watching on the Safari Park’s Condor Cam. Stay tuned!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, The Next Chapter in the Adventures of Saticoy.


Next Chapter in Adventures of Condor Saticoy

California condor chick, Saticoy, as seen on Condor Cam in April, 2012.

California condor chick, Saticoy, as seen on Condor Cam in April 2012.

Our Condor Cam superstar from last season, Saticoy, is heading out into the wild blue yonder! We have recently received notification from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service that Saticoy will be released to the wild in California.

For those that are new to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Condor Cam, Saticoy is one of our California condor chicks who hatched here last season and is the sibling of this year’s Condor Cam chick. He actually hatched live online on the morning of March 10, 2012. Thousands of lucky viewers logged on to experience this one-of-a-kind event.

Here at the Safari Park, we have been video-monitoring our condor nests for over 20 years, but 2012 marked the first time that a condor nest was available for viewing by the public. The parents (father Sisquoc and mother Shatash) did an amazing job of feeding and caring for Saticoy as he hatched and grew under the watchful and admiring eyes of all of his fans. When he hatched, he weighed around 180 grams and had a wingspan of only about 5 inches. Now, at 1 year of age, he weighs 17 pounds (nearly 8 kilograms) and sports a 9 1/2-foot wingspan!

Saticoy and two of our other youngsters, Nechuwa and Sukilamu, had their pre-shipment examinations on April 2. Our veterinarian staff gave them all health exams and took blood samples, making sure that they are free from disease before they are released to the wild condor population. They will be transported on April 11 to the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge in the Los Padres National Forest of southern California. There, they will receive new wing tags, wing transmitters (so the field biologists can track them), and be socialized with another group of condors before they are finally allowed to fly free. The release date has not been set yet. It could be any time from late summer to mid-winter. We’ll try to keep you up to date on release location and date as we get notice.

With any luck, Saticoy will thrive in the wild and use the experience he gained from his parents, Sisquoc and Shatash, and his release mentor and cohort here at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. As you stay tuned for more in the adventures of Saticoy, enjoy watching his younger sibling grow up on Condor Cam, and remember to vote for a name for this chick by April 15!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.


Condor Egg is Hatching!

Shatash continues to incubate her pipping egg.

Shatash continues to incubate her pipping egg.

The big hatch day is quickly approaching, and our devoted California condor parents, Sisquoc and Shatash, have been patiently caring for and incubating their egg here at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Well, actually, they’ve been caring for a wooden egg that we refer to as a “dummy” egg. We use a dummy egg as a type of placeholder until their real egg is ready to hatch. It’s not as if we don’t trust them with a real egg; on the contrary, they have proven to be very reliable parents! When we artificially incubate the eggs and let the parents sit on a dummy egg, we can more closely and conveniently monitor the egg’s progress and offer any necessary assistance without disturbing the doting parents. When the real egg is about to hatch, we carefully switch it with the dummy egg.

California condor eggs start the hatching process after 53 to 56 days of incubation. The process can first be seen when the air cell begins to quickly expand. 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. Once the air cell expands against the embryo’s beak, the membrane of the air cell is pierced, initiating pulmonary respiration. This is the first time the condor chick is breathing air. The chick is breathing in more oxygen than can enter through the pores of the eggshell. Consequently, carbon dioxide builds up in the egg. This buildup stimulates the chick to start pushing from inside the egg until the shell is finally broken. A dime-sized bump is raised in the shell. This is called a pip.

Once the chick pips the shell, more oxygen can enter the egg, and the chick continues with the hatching process. Blood vessels lining the interior of the egg are shut off and the yolk sac is retracted into the chick via its umbilicus. We obviously cannot see these processes, but we can see the chick breathing, pushing or poking at the pip site, nibbling on shell membranes, and enlarging the pip site by breaking more shell. Every once in a while, we can even hear the chick squawk from inside!

When the yolk sac is fully retracted, and the blood vessels are ready, the chick begins to rotate inside the egg. As the chick pushes against the interior of the shell, it rotates inside the egg, breaking shell as it does so. As you can imagine, this is a very tiring activity for the little chick! The parents don’t break off any new shell for the chick, but they do remove broken pieces of shell. When the chick is almost fully rotated, it starts to push harder inside the egg, resulting in the shell expanding until the top of the egg comes off. This is called capping. At this point, the parents help the chick more, removing the capped shell or even pulling the bottom of the eggshell off of the chick. This is when we consider the chick hatched!

The pip-to-hatch period can vary for each species of bird, but for California condors it can last between 48 and 72 hours. We have seen some parent-hatched chicks take a little longer (~85 hours) to hatch with no ill effects.

Sisquoc and Shatash’s egg started the hatching process at 2 a.m., Sunday, March 24, when the chick pipped the shell. We returned the pipped egg to the parents at around noon, about 10 hours after pip. We quietly snuck into the nest box while they were out eating in their flight pen to exchange the real egg for the dummy egg. Shatash returned to the nest and settled back onto the egg, but now it is moving a bit and squawking underneath her!

If all continues to go well, we are expecting the egg to hatch around 2 a.m. on Wednesday, March 27. Of course, it could hatch before OR after that time, so keep checking in on Condor Cam. A good time range to expect a hatch is from 8 a.m. on Tuesday, March 26, to 3 p.m. on Wednesday, March 27.

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