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California condor chick

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Condor Chick: Name is Chosen!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Condor Chick Fostering: First Exam

Boy or girl? We'll find out soon!

Boy or girl? We’ll find out soon!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Condor Chick Fostering: 30 to 45 Days

The growing chick has lots of feathers to play with.

The growing chick has lots of feathers to play with.

At a little over 1 month of age, our California condor chick should weigh around 4.5 pounds (2 kilograms) (see previous post, Condor Chick Fostering: 1 Week to 1 Month). The foster parents, Towich and Sulu, have started leaving the chick alone overnight, sleeping near the nest. If the weather is still cool or it’s raining, the parents may 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 call it the 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 gets 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, or around June 12, the chick will get its first health exam. We will obtain a blood sample for the lab to make sure it is healthy and to determine if the chick is male or female. Also, during the exam, we will weigh the chick—it should weigh between 7.7 and 8.8 pounds (3.5 and 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. Most importantly, this exam allows us to administer a vaccine for West Nile virus, a 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 quick (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. Towich and Sulu are usually away from the nest when we perform the procedure, to keep them as calm as possible as well. 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 on Condor Cam!

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

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Condor Chick Fostering: Week 1

Towich dutifully sits tight.

Towich dutifully sits tight.

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s newest California condor chick hatched on April 29, 2014, weighing around 6 ounces or 180 grams (see post Fostering Condor Chicks). The hatching process can be grueling, so afterward, the chick usually rests a lot and is brooded—or 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. With the chick being weak and wobbly, it 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 that 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 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 on Condor Cam, since the parents are standing directly above the chick, blocking the camera’s view. If you see the parents slightly bobbing their heads while standing over the chick, feeding is occurring. Feeding sessions are fairly short for small chicks, since their crops are only about the size of a lima bean.

Condor Cam zoomed in on the doting father this morning.

Condor Cam zoomed in on the doting father this morning.

Both the male and female California condor 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, father Towich took this dominant role. Other years, we’ve seen Sulu 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.

Sometimes Condor Cam viewers are concerned about the number of times that the chick gets stepped on by the parents. In many species, ranging from hummingbirds to elephants, babies get slightly squished by the parents. 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 4 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 their 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 when 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 Condor Cam. Stay tuned!

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

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Moving Day for Condor Cuyamaca

What's going on? Ron's post explains all.

What’s going on? Ron’s post explains all.

Cuyamaca, the California condor chick who hatched and was raised by her parents Sisquoc and Shatash on the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Condor Cam, has officially flown the coop…in a manner of speaking. On Tuesday, September 3, 2013, we removed her from her parents’ flight pen at our California condor breeding facility and moved her to our remote socialization pen, approximately one mile from the main part of the Safari Park. There, she will be isolated from any human activity and socialized with other fledglings her age: females Wesa (pronounced WAY-sah) and Kimi (KEE-mee), and male Kuyam (KOO-yam). Eventually, she will be joined by two birds yet to fledge: males Pshan (Puh-SHAWN) and Ostus (OH-stuss). She will also be living with 2-year-old juvenile female condor Ihiy (EE-hee), and 9-year-old adult female Xananan (ha-NA-nan).

California condors who are expected to be released to the wild are called release candidates. We raise all of our condor chicks as if they are release candidates until we hear otherwise from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which oversees the California Condor Recovery Program. We have yet to hear if and/or where any of this year’s fledglings will be released; it may not be determined until December. Release candidates are isolated from humans. We offer their food through a chute in the wall, and we don’t pick up any of their old food. The pools are drained and rinsed from the outside of the pen. The only time the birds see us is during a medical procedure: affixing wingtags, doing pre-shipment examinations, or giving West Nile virus inoculations. These generally are not enjoyable experiences for the young condors, and that is what we want them to learn from us before they are shipped to the wild. We don’t want them to associate humans with anything beneficial. We are hoping to foster behaviors that wild condors would have: avoiding human activity and hazardous, artificial situations. Survival rates for condors that become accustomed to humans and human activity are very low.

One of Cuyamaca’s new penmates has a very important role. Xananan, the adult, is acting as the young birds’ new mentor. Her job is to facilitate the socialization of the fledglings. Condors are very social and, like us, need to learn the rules of how to interact in a group. The parent condors started this process when their chicks hatched and continued it as the youngsters eventually fledged. Now that they are no longer living with their parents, Xananan will further their “education.” She will be the dominant bird in the pen, often displacing the fledglings from perches or roost sites or pushing them from the food until she has eaten first. The dominant birds at a site are usually the biggest ones and often the most experienced. The young condors need to learn how to interact with these dominant and pushy birds to be successful in the wild.

The socialization pen is very large with lots of space to fly around and exercise wings. There are several large oak snags on which to perch or roost. Also, there are two pools from which to drink or bathe. There are several ground-level perches and boulders to hop around on as well. It is interesting to see the social development of each bird. They can choose to perch next to whichever bird they wish, so they really get to know each other well. We have learned that young condors that aren’t well-socialized tend not to be successful once they are released to the wild.

Before Cuyamaca was moved, we were able to affix yellow wingtag #79 to her right wing. We normally put the last two digits of the condor’s studbook number on the tag. This wingtag helps to identify Cuyamaca so we can differentiate her from the other fledglings, as they all have their own wingtag numbers. The wingtags serve the same purpose as legbands do for any of the other birds you might see at the San Diego Zoo or the Safari Park. We just can’t use legbands on the condors, as the bands would get encrusted with urates during urohydrosis, and it would become impossible to read the numbers on the band. Urohydrosis is the process in which condors, and all other New World vultures, keep cool. They excrete uric acid, or urates, on their bare legs. When this liquid evaporates, it cools the skin and the underlying blood vessels, similar to how sweating keeps us cool. Another reason condors get wingtags is that they are so strong, they can just bend the legbands right off of their legs!

Cuyamaca weighed 18 pounds (8.17 kilograms) before she was moved to her new pen, very close to her adult weight. She weighed only about 180 grams when she hatched on March 26!

Thanks again for all of the interest, support, and great comments and questions over the past five months. It has been awesome to see how well the Condor Cam was received by all of Sisquoc, Shatash, and Cuyamaca’s new family of fans. It has been an honor to be able to acquaint you with these amazing, beautiful, and majestic birds! Although you cannot watch her anymore, we’ll keep you updated on Cuyamaca’s progress in this next socialization stage of her development.

Luckily, the condor pair housed next door to Sisquoc and Shatash is still raising their chick, so we are able to use the Condor Cam to show you this new family! The male is named Towich (pronounced “TOH-witch”) and the female is Sulu (SOO-loo). The chick’s name is Pshan (as mentioned above), and he is 130 days old. He jumped up onto his nest-box barrier for the first time on September 2 and should be hopping into the adjoining roost soon. I’ll tell you more about this family in the next Condor Cam blog. Stay tuned!

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

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Condor Chick has Fledged!

Perhaps one day Cuyamaca will be flying free.

Perhaps one day Cuyamaca will be flying free.

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

Fledging is the process in which a young bird leaves the nest. We consider a California condor chick to be fledged when it can fly to the higher perches in the pen, approximately 10 feet off the ground. When condor chicks fledge, they tend to be around 140 or 150 days old. The youngest bird to fledge here at the Safari Park was 123 days old. Cuyamaca left her nest for the first time at 136 days of age.

Our condor nest boxes are elevated: they’re on the second floor of the condor breeding facility. The nests have one entrance that leads to the roost area. The entrance has an 18-inch (45 centimeters) barrier at the base to prevent young hatchlings from wandering out of our camera’s view. This barrier also provides exercise for the chick when it is big enough to start jumping up onto the barrier. The roost area is open to the flight pen and has a ledge that is about 8 feet (2.4 meters) off the ground. There is a 5-inch-diameter (12 centimeters) pole leaning from the ground to the ledge; we call this the pole ladder. The condors can walk up or down this pole ladder to get to or from the nest; they can, of course, fly to the nest if they desire.

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

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

When condor chicks fledge in the wild, it can be a long process as well. They often walk around the mouth of their nest cave, hopping about, testing their wings. They may hop or climb into nearby shrubs or trees to get a better vantage point. Very seldom do chicks just spring forth from their nest into the wild blue yonder. They usually need to exercise and build their abilities before embarking on such a dangerous venture. Mom and Dad are always present to escort or protect the chicks, too. Parent condors can be very vigilant and defensive of their chicks. After all, much energy and many resources went into producing just this one chick, so they try very hard to ensure success for their only nestling. One pair of condors in California actually chased a black bear away from their nest!

With this new camera view, you’ll be able to see the roost area, most of the perches in the pen, the feeding area (shift pen), shade areas created by plants, and the pool. The view is wide, so detail is a bit harder to discern. Also, we do minimal maintenance in the pen, so the pen has lots of plant growth and dried food (animal carcasses) in it. We limit our activities in/near chick pens so as not to expose Cuyamaca to humans, which would desensitize her to our presence. We have found that chicks raised in isolation from humans tend to be more successful once they are released to the wild. The flight pen won’t look as nice as an exhibit you might see at the San Diego Zoo or the Safari Park, but Sisquoc and Shatash prefer it that way if it means we stay away from their precious chick!

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

So what’s next for Cuyamaca? She’ll stay in the pen with her parents for a little while longer. She is still learning from them. In the wild, condor chicks stay with or around their parents for up to 18 months. We don’t let them stay that long here at the Park. If we did, the next breeding season would probably be compromised; the presence of the fledgling may prevent the parents from breeding the next year, or the parents may turn aggressive to the chick if they try to nest again. Sometime in the fall, Cuyamaca will be removed from her parents so they can prepare for the next breeding season, and she will be introduced to other birds her age and an adult bird to act as a behavioral mentor. In the meantime, it will be decided whether she will be a candidate for release to the wild (and where) or held back for the captive breeding program. I’ll keep you informed when this happens. Until then, please continue to keep checking in on our big girl.

The interest and enthusiasm over the hatch and growth of Cuyamaca have been wonderful. We really appreciate all of the comments and questions we have received throughout her development. Thanks again for all of your support; we couldn’t do it without you!

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

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Condor Chick: Wing Exercise

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

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

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

The barrier is 18 inches (45 centimeters) tall, so if she can jump up onto it, it’s not a long fall if she slips. Usually, the chicks are strong enough to jump down without slipping. Hopping up and down from the nest barrier exercises Cuyamaca’s wings, and perching on it helps improve her balance. She may even sleep on top of the barrier! From the barrier, Cuyamaca will be able to hop back into her nest, if she wants to, or she can hop into the adjoining roost area, of which most can be viewed via the Condor Cam. While out in the roost, she can rest or sleep in the shade, perch with her parents (if they are not perched out in the flight pen), or step out to the roost ledge to soak up the sun’s rays for the first time.

The ledge is about 8 feet (2.4 meters) from the ground: high enough to make the parents feel comfortable and secure in their nest but not as high as a condor nest in the wild. Cuyamaca may get near the edge, but she will be cautious in doing so, so she doesn’t teeter off. It is natural for condor chicks to explore and exercise on the edge of their nest cavities. Rarely do they fall out; in 30 years of raising California condors here at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, we have never seen a chick fall from its nest area prematurely.

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

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

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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.

9

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.

3

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.