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California Condors

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What We’re Thankful For

Giving thanks is certainly in season, but our gratitude for the support of our members, donors, sponsors, and partners extends far beyond the holiday. Plus, we thank our dedicated volunteers for their efforts in connecting our visitors to wildlife and conservation. So while we continue to give thanks to all the people and organizations that contribute to our goal of saving species from extinction, there are a few special shout-outs we would like to emphasize this Thanksgiving.

California Condor Recovery Program

They are one of the largest flying birds and one of our greatest continuing success stories. We’ve come a long way since 1985, when California condors were 22 birds away from extinction. Today, more than 400 California condors are alive, with over half flying free in California, Arizona, and Baja California, Mexico. This year we’re especially grateful for our international partners in Baja California, Mexico and at the Chapultepec Zoo in Mexico City. With a renewed cross-border commitment to the California Condor Recovery Program, our mounting achievements will result in even more condors spreading their wings and flying free in the wild.

Southwestern pond turtle headstart to recovery program

Don’t let their tough shells fool you! According to Conservation International, 40 percent of turtle species across the globe are at immediate risk of extinction. In 2013, we gave California’s only native freshwater turtle species, the southwestern pond turtle, a “headstart” toward recovery with the help of the U.S. Geological Survey, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the San Diego Association of Governments. Five more turtles were released into the Sycuan Peak Ecological Reserve this summer, so a special thanks goes to our local conservation partners for the swimming success and enduring research.

The first full breeding season for Hawaii’s native palila was a success at the Maui Bird Conservation Center. Six healthy chicks were produced with the help of the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program and our local partners. Watch the video to learn about a few other bird species we’ve been working with on the Hawaiian Islands.

African elephants

We are thankful to receive the 2014 Edward H. Bean Award from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) for the African bush elephant program, along with Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo. We’ve also had success with our satellite herd of this species at the Reid Park Zoo in Tucson. The birth of our most recent calf, Nandi, contributed to the population of these gentle giants, and we are pleased to work with animal care staff in Arizona to further this mission.

San Diego Ronald McDonald House Tunes into San Diego Zoo Kids Network

Introducing people to wildlife is crucial for the conservation of all species. In addition to four hospitals across the United States, this year we were able to bring the San Diego Zoo Kids channel to the patients and families at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Furthermore, the educational channel was implemented into Ronald McDonald House Charities of San Diego, where children can enjoy hours of animal stories from the comfort of their own rooms.

Tull Family Tiger Trail

The opening of the Tull Family Tiger Trail was the culmination of years of planning, design, fund-raising, and construction, all made possible through the contributions of our community and the amazing generosity of the Tull Family. This adventure is proof that when we come together, we can accomplish great things for endangered species like the Sumatran tiger.

Highlighting every species and conservation success we’ve shared this year is impossible. However, on behalf of everybody at San Diego Zoo Global, our organization would like to thank all of our members, volunteers, donors, partners, and the overall community for the ongoing support and dedication. Bringing species back from the brink of extinction is our ultimate goal, but we can’t do it without you.

Join the conversation: What are you thankful for this year?

Jenn Beening is the social media specialist for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, 9 Culturally Haunting Animals.

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Condor Chick: Lonely?

Saticoy continues to grow and thrive!

Some of our Condor Cam viewers have been worried that our growing chick, Saticoy, looks lonely and/or bored. California condors naturally have a one-egg clutch; in other words, there is never more than one chick in a nest. Although Saticoy may appear lonely to us, we need to keep in mind that his social requirements are much different from ours. Of course a human would be lonely being raised in isolation, but condors thrive in that situation: no competition from nest mates, ensuring plenty of food for growth; plenty of attention and preening and protection from both parents, facilitating the proper social skills for when it’s time to leave the nest; and reducing the amount of waste that can accumulate in a nest, reducing the possibilities for a parasite infestation.

Condor parents Sisquoc and Shatash visit Saticoy several times a day for feeding and social interaction, giving their youngster everything that he needs. If he was in distress, it would manifest in improper growth and unusual behaviors. Rest assured that he is in perfect health and showing excellent behaviors for a potential release candidate at this age, indicating to us that Sisquoc and Shatash are doing a textbook job!

As for giving him “toys” or enrichment items, the parents have provided several items in the nest for Saticoy to explore or play with: feathers, dried food items, bones, and cast hair pellets. We have seen Saticoy (as well as every other condor raised at the Safari Park) play with, sleep on, and re-distribute these items around the nest. Field observations have shown that condor chicks in wild nests in California, Arizona, and Mexico behave in the exact same manner. We don’t want to provide any unnaturally occurring items in the nest as playthings, as this would encourage him to seek out similar items if he is released to the wild, possibly putting him in harm’s way.

Please remember that we are trying 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. I hope you continue to enjoy watching Saticoy grow!

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

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Condors: Big Day Approaching!

The real egg starts to pip!

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 that is now beginning the first stage of hatching. And you can help us name this little chick (details below)! Until now, 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 while the parents are out in the flight pen eating or sunning. They usually don’t even realize we’ve switched eggs on them; they just return to their incubation duties, but now their egg is moving and squawking underneath them as they sit.

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, inhaling 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 the 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. At this point, 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 (about 85 hours) to hatch with no ill effects. If all continues to go well, we are expecting Sisquoc and Shatash’s egg to hatch very soon. You can check on them frequently via our Condor Cam, and maybe you’ll get to see the hatch in progress! This is the first time we have been able to show you the inside of a condor nest and the hatching of chick. We hope you enjoy watching as much as we do.

And to make it that much more exciting, we want to hear your suggestions for a name. There is a catch, though! The name must be submitted in the Chumash language and have a special meaning. For example, Sisquoc was named after the first protected space set aside for this species in 1937, the Sisquoc Condor Sanctuary in Los Padres National Forest. Sisquoc is a Chumash word that means “in the thick tule.”

Submit your condor chick name suggestions by posting them on our Facebook wall at facebook.com/sdzglobal or by tweeting them to us at twitter.com/sdzglobal and using the hashtag #CondorName. Don’t post them here, as we want you to get social and suggest a name on Facebook or Twitter! The deadline for name submissions is March 15. Keepers will pick their favorite three names, and we will give you another chance to get involved by voting for your favorite of the three names selected by keepers from your original submissions. Fun prizes will be awarded, so get creative. And happy viewing!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Condor Cam: The Proud Parents.

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10 Reasons for Hope

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that the current extinction rate for species on our planet is more than 1,000 times the rate it would be naturally, thanks to human factors. Climate change is implicated in reductions to water availability in ecosystems and ice in the Arctic. These days you only have to turn on the television to have a front row seat for the environmental disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. Everywhere you look, the news about the state of nature seems gloomy.

Working to make positive change in protecting rare species and their habitats is not an easy task. It takes the efforts of trained experts, working collaboratively, often on limited funds and against a ticking clock, to ensure the survival of a portion of our planet’s biodiversity. It requires the support of people and governments who believe in the value of such work. And it relies on the fundamental belief that such actions can make a difference. In short: it takes hope.

On May 21, Endangered Species Day, the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research will celebrate by launching its new initiative, “10 Reasons for Hope.” This effort draws attention to some of the successes we have had as a means by which to inspire us all to continue to fight the good fight. Our reasons for hope highlight projects making a difference in both wild and captive management of species at risk.

Several projects have contributed to increasing wild population numbers via reintroductions or translocations. The Institute has long been involved with the efforts to turn around the decline in California condor numbers; we have seen the wild population increase from 22 to 180 birds in recent years. In Hawaii, more than 200 puaiohi have been released into native forests. Close to home in Southern California, the numbers of endangered kangaroo rats have increased through translocations into good habitat. Without the work of our staff and partners, and the support of governments and communities, these species would have continued on their trajectory toward extinction. Now, we have witnessed the reversal of those trends.

There have also been significant achievements in managing captive populations. We have developed a screening lab for the chytrid fungus, which has devastated wild populations of amphibians the world over. By testing samples in captive populations, we can ensure their survival, and wild populations can be supplemented with animals from breeding programs. We helped launch Genome 10k, an effort to sequence the genomes of vertebrate species that will allow for better treatment of zoonotic diseases in both wild and captive animals. And the number of giant pandas in zoos and breeding centers worldwide should reach 300 this summer, ensuring a self-sustaining captive population.

Here’s something we can all be a part of: connecting our children to nature. There is an international movement to get kids out of the house and onto the trails, beaches, and parks in their area. Fostering this connection will ensure a future generation of environmental stewards, people who care enough to support conservation objectives. We can all participate by introducing our children, or other young relatives or friends, to the wilds in your own backyard.

The news of the world can be depressing, and the constant barrage of pleas for assistance or action on behalf of the world’s declining species and habitats can feel overwhelming. But take heart. In some places, and in big and small ways, efforts are making a difference. Our reasons for hope offer clear examples of how the battle can be won and how it is being won in many different ways. We invite you to allow a little hope to seep into the gloom and doom by visiting the 10 Reasons for Hope page. The future of biodiversity on the planet depends upon those who allow that spirit to guide them to action on behalf of us all.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.

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Measuring Wind beneath Condor Wings

A condor's eye view? Flying over condor habitat in Baja California, Mexico.

A condor's eye view? Flying over condor habitat in Baja California, Mexico.

Last month, we conducted an expedition to install a series of meteorological stations on the remote and inaccessible eastern escarpment of the Sierra Mountains of Baja California, Mexico. This rugged region of spectacular natural beauty is the release site for the San Diego Zoo’s California condor reintroduction program. This site was chosen because of its status as a pristine, protected area of the condor’s former range. Condors existed in the mountains of Baja until they disappeared in the 1940s, only to reappear in 2002 when the San Diego Zoo released captive-bred birds back into their former habitat.

The mountainous terrain of the Baja reintroduction site provides ideal habitat for the wild condors. The birds must range over extremely wide areas to detect the carcasses of the animals that they scavenge upon for food, such as mountain sheep, goats, and pigs. California condors are extremely efficient fliers, and they are able to glide for long distances without flapping their wings, much like an albatross does when flying across the open ocean. This efficient soaring enables the birds to successfully search for food without expending too much energy. Condors gain lift by catching thermal updrafts, and these wind currents often form alongside mountains. Thermal winds are especially frequent along the Baja Sierra ranges, when warm air from the valleys and deserts below forms a rising column. The strong winds and frequent thermals that occur in this area make it an ideal location for condor habitat, and the birds have been tracked making long-distance exploratory flights whenever wind conditions seem to be suitable.

Defining suitable (or even optimal) wind conditions in condor habitats is key to successfully managing wild condor populations and reintroduction programs. The importance of wind in determining condor foraging success means that a habitat that may seem ideal to conservation managers (i.e., due to high densities of food items or good roosting and nest sites) may actually be inferior in the eyes of a condor because the winds are too weak, erratic, or unstable to sustain efficient condor flight over long distances. In fact, the condor population that was released by the Zoo on the western escarpment of the Baja Sierras now makes frequent and unforeseen use of the eastern ridges 12 miles (19 kilometers) away, where strong, hot winds roar up from the scorching Laguna Salada desert below.

One of the remote-operated meteorological stations the author helped install.

One of the remote-operated meteorological stations the author helped install.

To gain a better understanding of the climate conditions that drive condor movement patterns and modify condor habitat preference, we installed remote-operated meteorological stations within the range of the released condors. These stations are solar-powered and mounted on 10-foot-tall (3-meter-tall) tripods. A logger records climate information from wind and air temperature sensors, and these data are then transmitted via a satellite phone network. This way, the stations can be installed in remote areas without the need to change batteries or download the data by hand, as the climate sensor information can be directly downloaded from the Internet.

A precarious perch for the helicopter!

A precarious perch for the helicopter!

The eastern escarpment of the Baja Sierras favored by the wild condors is so steep, rugged, and remote that it is inaccessible by foot. Hence, we had to employ a helicopter to install our meteorological stations (with the kind permission of the Mexican federal government, the local ejido (community), the management department of the Parque Nacional Sierra San Pedro Martir, and the Mexican military). After loading up the chopper with our scientific equipment at San Felipe airport, we flew directly across the desert and high up into the mountains. I had previously determined the location sites for each station using the combined home ranges of the birds themselves: that way, we would be collecting climate data within the areas that the condors actually use. These locations proved to be so steep and jagged that our expert pilot had to search hard for safe landing sites. Often we had to land on the edge of sheer precipices with the chaparral barely feet away from the spinning helicopter rotors!

Another typical day at the office...

Another typical day at the office...

As soon as we had set down safely, we rushed out to erect each tripod by bolting it onto the top of a flat rock; the incredibly strong winds that occur in the area mean that each station must be robustly secured. Setting up and activating each station took less than an hour, and we had successfully installed each unit by early afternoon. Upon our return, we were able to immediately begin downloading the climate data recorded by each station at five-minute intervals. These highly accurate, high-resolution data will provide invaluable information on how wind patterns shape and modify the movement patterns and habitat use of the reintroduced condors. This information will in turn help managers fine-tune the condor reintroduction program to the specific habitat requirements of this endangered, iconic species.

James Sheppard is a postdoctoral fellow for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Condors: Quest for the Egg.

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Releasing Condors: Not So Easy

California condor #430 in the chaparrel.

California condor #430 in the chaparrel.

On Friday, September 18, we attempted to release three more California condors to the wild at our condor reintroduction site in Baja California, Mexico. We had conditioned the three new birds, numbers 430, 436, and 446, in the large aviary with our adult mentor, Xewe, since they arrived at the site from the Wild Animal Park on March 19. The threesome was transferred a few weeks ago to the release pen situated atop a 2,000-foot ridge, where they could become accustomed to the sights and sounds of the area and see previously released condors use the food and water available to them once they were free. New tags and transmitters were attached on the night of September 13 by the field crew and they were ready to go. However…

Condor #446 in the release pen.

Condor #446 in the release pen.

This simple scenario is overshadowed by the reality that older condors in the free-flying group have worked out their social status differences, for the most part, and any newcomers must go through an initiation that can be rough, or at least intimidating. So, after opening the 6-foot pen door at 3:30 a.m. on September 17, one of the mid-level, older birds, #362, entered the pen when there was enough light and began harassing #430, driving him out of the pen.
The older condors roost on top of the release pen.

The older condors roost on top of the release pen.

With sort of a forced release, he flew to a hillside a hundred or so yards to the south and began to climb. From a higher vantage point, he was soon able to fly back to the vicinity of the release pen but not without drawing the attention of other older birds that took turns approaching and investigating him up close.

Condor #436 on release day.

Condor #436 on release day.

After all the attention (at times there were seven condors playing on the release aviary roof netting), one of the release birds, #446, remained in the pen overnight, one slept in the tall pines toward the cliff, and one, #436, roosted overnight on top of the pen. Over the next few days all seemed to settle in a more normal release routine, with the newcomers taking short exploratory flights and tentatively feeding in and around the established birds at carrion we strategically placed out under the cover of darkness.

Now we hope for a smooth transition over time as they practice flying, learn where to find food, water, roosts, and seek acceptance within the group.

Mike Wallace is a conservation program manager for the San Diego Zoo.

California Condor Recovery Program