california condor


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!


Condor Egg is Fertile!

A California condor egg is examined.

A California condor egg is examined.

We have good news to report: Sisquoc and Shatash’s egg is FERTILE! (See previous post, New Egg for Condors Sisquoc and Shatash.)

California condor Shatash laid the egg on January 27, and we are expecting it to begin the hatching process around March 23. So, it is over one third of the way through its 56-day incubation period. Condor Cam viewers have been watching Sisquoc and Shatash take turns caring for and incubating their egg. Well, actually, they’ve been caring for a wooden egg that we refer to as a “dummy” egg. We use a dummy egg as a 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 place the egg in an incubator and let the parents sit on a dummy egg, we can more closely and conveniently monitor the egg’s progress and offer any necessary assistance without disturbing the doting parents. We weigh the egg every day and candle it every few days. When we candle the egg, we hold it up to a bright light that illuminates the interior of the egg, allowing us to see inside. We can monitor blood vessels, membrane development, embryo growth, and movement. By weighing and candling during the incubation period, we can make sure that the embryo is progressing normally, and if it isn’t, we can prepare to offer help if and when it is needed.

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

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

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

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


Phantom Condor Chick Appears

A young, unmarked California condor soars in the skies of Baja California, Mexico.

A young, unmarked California condor soars in the skies of Baja California, Mexico. Photo credit: Juan Vargas

In the spring of 2012, our newest wild California condor pair in Baja California, Mexico, identified as #361 and #373, continued to show signs that they were incubating an egg by being more aggressive to the other condors around the feeding site and by spending a lot of time in a remote area dotted by deep canyons and precipitous cliffs. Their GPS wing transmitters indicated a near-exact position of where the nest would be out in the wilderness by latitude and longitude readings. Plugging these coordinates into our handheld GPS, Program Field Manager Juan Vargas and I struck out in September 2012 to try to find the nest, knowing that it was about 15 miles (24 kilometers) out to the remote south of our condor field station.

We traveled light and fast but only made it three quarters of the way there after three days through rough terrain and vegetation. With dwindling food and clean water, we decided to head back. Also, the GPS maps indicated that the nest was very high in precipitous terrain, and we were not carrying sufficient ropes and equipment to deal with it safely. Within condor release programs in the United States, if the nests are too difficult to find or ascend to, scientists rely on waiting for the young to fledge and show up at feeding sites, where they can be trapped and tagged later. We decided to do the same, since verifying the young at the nest would be too costly in terms of helicopter time, which would be the only way we could safely access it.

The chick and its mother, #???

The chick and its tagged mother at rest.

The downside to this decision was that the chick would not be inoculated for West Nile virus and would run the risk of catching the disease if we could not administer the vaccine. From our field station, Catalina Porras and crew analyzed both radiotelemetry and GPS data and estimated that the chick probably fledged in October. Over the three months that followed, only the behavior of the parents at the feeding site and their movement patterns continued to give us hope that there was indeed a chick flying around in the backcountry. We continued to scan the skies for a “tagless” condor with a gray head.

Finally, on February 4, 2013, Juan and a crew member observed a juvenile condor showing behavior that stood out from the others. Further scrutiny revealed that the black-headed youngster had no tags. It was hard to keep the excitement contained as we realized that the phantom chick had survived! As the new chick becomes accustomed to the other wild condors and the feeding site over the next few months, we are hoping to trap it, administer the West Nile virus vaccine, and tag it with GPS transmitters so we can safely follow its progress.Three condor pairs are looking like they may produce young this season. With luck, we may find more dark-headed condor young in the skies over the Baja mountains next year as well.

Michael Wallace is a conservation program manager for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Releasing Condors: Not So Easy.


New Egg for Condors Sisquoc and Shatash

A condor flies to its nest box in the Safari Park's "Condorminium" complex.

A condor flies to its nest box in the Safari Park’s “Condorminium” complex.

Welcome back to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Condor Cam! The Condor Cam provides a rare look inside an active California condor nest. Over the next seven months, you will be able to witness incubation behavior, the hatch of a chick, its growth, and its eventual fledge (leaving of the nest). Another exciting California condor breeding season is upon us. Our third egg of the season was laid on January 27, 2013. The proud parents are last year’s Condor Cam stars Sisquoc (pronounced “SISS-kwawk”) and Shatash (pronounced “shah-TAHSH”). Sisquoc is the male, and he is wearing yellow wing tags (#28). Shatash, the female, is not wearing any wingtags. Also, Sisquoc is visibly larger than Shatash. He is the largest condor here at the Park, weighing in at 25 pounds (11 kilograms).

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 March 30, 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. And look at him now—time flies, doesn’t it?

Shatash hatched at the Los Angeles Zoo, one of our partners in the California Condor Recovery Program. Her father was the first condor to hatch at the Safari Park (again, from a wild-laid egg), back in 1985. Sisquoc and Shatash have been paired together since 1993. This is their 22nd egg. Sixteen chicks have hatched, and Sisquoc and Shatash have raised five of them themselves, including last year’s Condor Cam chick, named Saticoy. 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.

California condors tend to be monogamous and share ALL nest duties: incubating the egg, brooding the chick, feeding the chick, and defending the nest. Throughout incubation you will see Sisquoc and Shatash take turns sitting on the egg to keep it warm. You may see them roll or turn the egg periodically. This gentle egg movement is crucial for the development of the growing embryo. Incubation bouts can be very short—just a few minutes—or birds can sit for two or three days, so don’t be alarmed! Sometimes the parents will sit together in the nest. Condor eggs incubate at about 98 degrees Fahrenheit (36 degrees Celsius). Condors have a long incubation period; we are expecting the egg to “pip,” or start hatching, after 55 days of incubation, around March 23, 2013.

Sisquoc and Shatash’s new egg 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 up to 404 birds. It’s a nice population increase, but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. This egg, and eventual chick, represents the next step in the California condor story – and you get to witness it on Condor Cam!

Stay tuned for future blogs with egg updates. 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, Saticoy’s Siblings.


Condor Moving Day

Ron and fellow keeper Fatima Lujan hold Saticoy, who now sports red wing tag #36.

Saticoy, our California condor who hatched and was raised by his parents, Sisquoc and Shatash, while viewers watched on our Condor Cam, has officially flown the coop… in a manner of speaking. We removed him from his parents’ flight pen at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s California condor breeding facility and moved him to our remote socialization pen, approximately one mile from the main part of the Safari Park. There, he will be isolated from any human activity and socialized with other fledglings his age: males Siyi (pronounced “SEE-yee”), Nechuwa (pronounced “neh-CHOO-wah”), and Sukilamu (pronounced “soo-kee-LA-moo”). Saticoy will also be living with a 1-year-old juvenile female condor named Ihiy (pronounced “EE-hee”) and an 8-year-old adult female named Xananan (pronounced “ha-NA-nan”).

California condors 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. The pools are drained and rinsed from the outside of the pen. We don’t pick up any of their old food. The only time the birds see us is during a medical procedure: affixing 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 Saticoy’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 the 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 in order to be successful in the wild. Fortunately, for all four of this year’s chicks, their parents gave them all a big head start.

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 Saticoy was moved, we were able to affix a wing tag to his right wing. He is wearing a red wing tag with the number 36. We normally put the last two digits of the condors’ studbook numbers on the tags. Saticoy’s studbook number, the official number by which he is known in the California Condor Recovery Program, is 636. This wing tag helps to identify Saticoy so we can differentiate him from the other fledglings; they all have their own wing tag numbers. The wing tags serve the same purpose as leg bands do for any of the other birds you might see at the San Diego Zoo or the Safari Park. We just can’t use leg bands on the condors. One reason is that the leg 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 wing tags is that they are so strong, they can just bend the leg bands right off of their legs!

Saticoy was also weighed before he was moved to his new pen. He weighed in at 7.95 kilograms (17.5 pounds), very close to his adult weight. For those that don’t remember, he weighed only about 180 grams (6.3 ounces) when he hatched on March 10!

Thanks again for all of the interest, support, and great comments and questions over the past 5 1/2 months. It has been awesome to see how well the Condor Cam was received by all of Sisquoc, Shatash, and Saticoy’s new “family” of fans. It has been an honor to be able to acquaint you with these amazing, beautiful, and majestic birds! We hope to continue Condor Cam. The next breeding season usually starts around November, with eggs being laid around January. We would like to introduce you to another pair of condors, so you can get to know them as well as you got to know Sisquoc and Shatash. Please keep checking for any other updates we may post about Saticoy. Even though he is no longer on Condor Cam, his story is far from over!

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


Condor Chick: Preparing to Fledge

Saticoy, now 123 days old, gazes at that ledge.

One of my favorite sayings is “Boring is good.” When things are boring, everything is going according to plan; excitement is often the result of something going awry. As many Condor Cam viewers have experienced, the rearing process for a California condor can be long and slow—some may even say boring. It makes sense, though, for a condor to develop so slowly. It has lots of growing to do. When our chick, Saticoy, hatched, he weighed approximately 6.3 ounces (180 grams). When he reaches his fledge weight of 17 pounds (8 kilograms) or more, he will have increased his hatch weight times 44! (I have only increased my birth weight times 19.)

On June 28, at 111 days of age, Saticoy took his most recent step toward leaving the nest: he jumped up onto the barrier between his nest box and the adjoining roost area. He quickly hopped back into his nest, but that’s okay. There’s no hurry to fledge, or leave the nest, just yet; his feathers still need time to fill in all the way. In the meantime, hopping up and down from the barrier exercises his muscles and improves his balance. Any day now, he will hop into the roost area on the other side of the barrier. Here, he can look into the flight pen where his parents, Sisquoc and Shatash, are and will be able to warm himself in the sun, if he so chooses.

The next step of Saticoy’s journey will be to fledge. When he is ready, he will jump off of the 8-foot-tall (2.4 meters) nest ledge. He will either slow his fall to the ground below the ledge or fly to a nearby perch. We consider him fledged when he can get up on a perch by himself. The youngest we have seen a condor chick fledge here at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is 123 days old (Saticoy is 123 days old on July 10). Sometimes chicks have waited until over 165 days. It all depends on the chick.

The parents tend to be very vigilant during this phase of their chick’s development. It could appear over-protective to us, but keep in mind that they have invested an entire breeding season and lots of energy into this one chick. It benefits them greatly to make sure that their sole offspring is safe, healthy, and strong. The parents will usually perch and/or roost near the fledgling. They also will join him when he finally starts going to the feeding area of the flight pen. Most of the time, though, they will push him aside and eat first, feeding him when they are done. In condor culture, the bigger, more dominant birds usually eat first, while the subordinate birds wait their turn. The earlier Saticoy learns this from his parents, the better he will assimilate into a wild population after he is released. Don’t worry! Sisquoc and Shatash won’t let Saticoy starve. They will continue to feed him even when he is out in the flight pen. Eventually, he will eat more and more on his own.

Depending on Saticoy’s development and activity levels, we will 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 he can either drink on his own or bathe (one of my favorite condor activities to observe!). The view will be wide, so detail will be harder to discern. Also, we do minimal maintenance in the pen once the chick is large enough to look over the nest box barrier, so the pen has lots of plant growth and dried food (animal carcasses) in it. We limit our activities in/near chick pens so as not to expose the chick to humans, thus desensitizing them 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 guy” spreads his wings and takes that next step. Rest assured, though, that Saticoy’s story will be far from over!

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


Condor Chick: Getting Big!

Saticoy, in one of his ungainly resting poses.

Saticoy, our little, fluffy California condor chick, is starting to get his big-bird feathers! As you may have noticed on Condor Cam, his flight feathers are growing in. Some of the first feathers that start to grow are the wing feathers. It is easy to see them growing through Saticoy’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 (2.9 meters)! We are estimating Saticoy’s wingspan to be around 5 feet (1.5 meters) right now, between the size of a red-tailed hawk and a bald eagle. His 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 Saticoy’s back, as well as the small feathers on the top of the wing (called “coverts”), will start to grow. Even though many new, black feathers will be covering parts of his body, Saticoy will still have lots of gray down showing, making it easy to differentiate him from his parents. Eventually, his light-colored skin will turn dark gray or black and be covered with fine, fuzzy feathers, but this won’t happen until well after he leaves the nest. His skin will stay dark until he reaches maturity at six years and it turns pink orange, just like his parents’, Sisquoc and Shatash.

Saticoy had his second health exam on May 18, during which our veterinary staff administered his second, and final, West Nile virus inoculation. A blood sample was obtained, and he weighed in at 12.78 pounds (5.8 kilograms), over half of his projected adult weight. Even though our little boy is getting big, he still has room to grow!

Many Condor Cam viewers have seen some rough-looking interactions between Saticoy and his parents, especially dad Sisquoc. What may have been happening was a form of discipline from Sisquoc. As Saticoy has gotten bigger, his begging displays and efforts have gotten 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 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! 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 Saticoy later when he encounters a big, unrelated bird that might not be as gentle.

With his new, long wing feathers, Saticoy will be exercising his wings more often in the form of strong flapping. You will notice that, as his wings gain more surface area, he will be able to lift his body off of the nest floor. He won’t be able to fly, but he’ll be a step closer. Plus, his legs will be getting stronger and more coordinated, allowing him to jump higher. When he is between 90 and 110 days old (June 7 to June 27), we expect him to be able to jump up onto the entry barrier of the nest box. It could be earlier or later, as each chick develops at a different rate. The barrier is 18 inches (45 centimeters) tall, so if he can jump up onto it, it’s not a long fall if he slips. Usually, the chicks are strong enough to jump down without slipping. Hopping up and down from the nest barrier exercises Saticoy’s wings, and perching on it helps improve his balance. He may even sleep on top of the barrier!

From the barrier, Saticoy will be able to hop back into his nest, if he wants to, or he can hop into the adjoining roost area, most of which can be viewed on Condor Cam. While out in the roost, he can rest or sleep in the shade, perch with his 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. Saticoy may get near the edge, but he will be cautious in doing so, so he 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 29 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.
Saticoy will fledge, or leave the nest, on his own terms. When he is ready, he will either jump to the floor of his 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 and 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’ll explain what to expect once Saticoy fledges, as well as what is in store for him if he is released to the wild.

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


Condor Chick: First Health Exam

Saticoy at 45 days old

On April 23, California condor chick Saticoy 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 Saticoy.

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 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 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 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 little Saticoy with a towel. This is the first time that Saticoy had ever seen a person and was understandably nervous and defensive, hissing and lunging at the intruder. Once under the cover of the towel, Saticoy 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 Saticoy’s leg. This sample was sent to the lab to make sure the chick is healthy. Also, our geneticists can determine if Saticoy is male or female from this sample. Next, a vaccine for West Nile virus was administered. This disease originated in Africa and was accidently introduced to North America by humans. North American animals, including condors, usually don’t have a natural immune response to the virus, so we are trying to give all chicks a head start. A microchip was injected under Saticoy’s skin. This chip is a form of identification. It’s the same kind of chip you can get for your dog or cat at the veterinarian. The veterinarian then gave a quick health assessment, checking Saticoy’s eyes, nares (nostrils), beak, feet, legs, wings, and abdomen. Lastly, we weighed Saticoy to make sure the chick 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 only seven minutes!

Once the exam was over, Saticoy was returned to the nest, and Shatash was allowed to approach and check on her chick. As previously mentioned, Saticoy was rightfully disturbed by this process, despite our best intentions to minimize stress. Although we feel bad that Saticoy was so nervous, it is actually good for the chick that it was not comfortable in our presence. We have to keep in mind that we don’t want Saticoy to become accustomed to or feel reassured by humans; we want the chick 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, Saticoy showed defensive posture, hissing at everything, even 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, Saticoy 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 Saticoy. 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 extremely successful. The blood work showed that Saticoy is healthy, and 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 strong. Saticoy weighed 7.7 pounds (3.55 kilograms) and was approximately the size of a bowling ball. Lastly, today we received the sex results from the Genetics Lab: Saticoy is a boy!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read Ron’s previous post, Condor Chick: 30 to 45 Days. Watch the chick daily on Condor Cam!


Condor Chick: 30 to 45 Days

Flashback: This chick, similar in age to Saticoy, was hand-raised in 2001. It was the 100th chick to hatch at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

See Ron’s previous post, Condor Chick: 1 to 3 Weeks.

At approximately 1 month of age, California condor chick Saticoy should weigh around 4.4 pounds (2 kilograms). The parents, Sisquoc and Shatash, may start leaving the chick alone overnight while they sleep 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 (and hence, Condor Cam), 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 and head-bobbing as it tries 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 rats and rabbits. Condors can digest just about every part of the animal 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 as young as three weeks cast hair pellets. 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 44 days of age (April 23), Saticoy will get his/her first health exam at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. We will obtain a blood sample to make sure the chick is healthy and send a portion of this sample to our Genetics Division, who can determine if Saticoy is male or female. Also, during the exam we will weigh Saticoy 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, a disease that originated in Africa and was accidently 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 try to give the chicks as much of a head start as we can.

This exam will be the first time that Saticoy will see humans, so it will naturally be disturbing for the chick. We try to be quick (9 to 10 minutes) to minimize the disturbance. Additionally, we will keep Saticoy covered with a towel to reduce exposure to humans and to provide 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. We don’t want Saticoy to become accustomed to or feel reassured by our presence; we want this chick to be a wild condor, uninterested and wary of humans, so that it may someday fly free in California, Arizona, or Mexico.

Saticoy will look very large at this age compared to how big the chick was at hatch, but remember that this little one is still less than half of her/his adult weight. There is much more growth and fun to come!

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


Condor Chick Named!

Six-year-old condor lover Hend with her condor plush, Sophie

We were blown away by the amount of thoughtful name submissions we got on Facebook and Twitter for the California condor chick growing before our eyes on Condor Cam. We were also surprised by the outpouring of support we got for our conservation efforts. Some participants even shared touching stories about condors and why it’s so important to save them from extinction. One such story was from the person who suggested the winning name, Emma Apple.

When Emma posted her name suggestion, Saticoy, she mentioned that her six-year-old daughter, Hend, is a huge condor lover. “She teaches everyone she meets about their plight,” Emma wrote, “She wants to be a ‘Condor Rescuer’ when she grows up.”

It’s not every day that we hear of a six-year-old with such an infatuation for an animal that isn’t typically thought of as cute and cuddly, so we had to know more. “People are always surprised at this little girl’s passion for these (oft perceived as) ugly [birds],” Emma wrote. “Ever since learning of their plight in a documentary about the Grand Canyon a couple of years ago, she’s just been completely enamored by them. I think she’s the coolest. How many pink-loving, 6-year-old condor fanatics are there?”

We agree. Hend is the coolest. When asked why she thinks it’s important to save animals from extinction, Hend replied “Because there would be no more and it was too late for dinosaurs and my brother loves dinosaurs. If there was an important species that’s endangered and they were extinct, we wouldn’t get the things that they give us.” Well said.When Emma told Hend that her name suggestion was the winner, Hend apparently shouted “This is one more step to being a Condor Rescuer!” and continued to release her plush condor named Sophie (after Sophie Osborn, who wrote a book about condors) “back into the wild” all evening. We were told that her condor plush has died of lead poisoning, been nursed back to health and been released back into the wild many times, so the one that comes as a prize will be in good hands.

Hend’s love for saving these beautiful birds gives us hope for the future. If every kid her age shared just a fraction of her passion, we would be in good hands. Thanks to everyone for posting name suggestions and voting for our condor chick’s name. We’re lucky to have such engaged supporters. Stay tuned to Condor Cam to watch little Saticoy grow up!

Matt Steele is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global. Read his previous post, Rhino Poaching Increases at Alarming Rate in 2011.