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condor breeding facility

3

Fostering Condor Chicks

Towich carefully keeps his new chick warm underneath him.

Towich carefully keeps his new chick warm underneath him.

Sometimes things go exactly as you plan. Sometimes Fate throws you a big curveball, forcing you to change that plan. As our Condor Cam viewers know, the egg that was going to hatch on Condor Cam this year under our experienced parents, Sisquoc and Shatash, died unexpectedly at the end of its incubation period on March 16 (see Condor Egg Loss). As a result, we moved the Condor Cam to a different nest in our Condor Breeding Facility at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park so that you could watch another pair, Towich and Sulu, hatch and rear a chick.

The male is Towich (pronounced TOH-witch) and the female is Sulu (SOO-loo). Towich is wearing yellow wing tags, numbered 35. Sulu is not wearing any tags. Towich hatched at the Los Angeles Zoo, one of our valuable partners in the California Condor Recovery Program, in 1996. He was released to the wild in Southern California in 1997 but was returned to captivity when he started showing interest in humans. More than likely, he was fed by people when he was young, causing him to lose his wariness of them. He is no longer suitable as a release bird. Towich’s story serves as an essential reminder that when viewing condors in the wild (or any wildlife, for that matter), it is of the utmost importance that we do not feed them or approach them too closely. Getting that extreme close-up picture or having the thrill of feeding a wild animal is not worth having the condor removed from the wild.

Sulu hatched at the Safari Park in 1990, and she has lived here with us her whole life. Towich is her second mate. She was separated from her first mate in 2000, when it was determined that she and Towich were a better genetic pairing. The pairing process in a breeding program can sound a bit clinical, especially in a species such as the California condor, whose population dropped to only 22 birds in 1982, but we have to be very careful who gets paired with whom in order to maintain as much genetic diversity as possible. Despite the lack of romance in being paired together, Towich and Sulu have developed into an awesome couple. They seldom squabble over food; they often perch near each other in the flight pen; they have excellent nest exchanges when incubating eggs or brooding chicks; and they seem to like to sit or lay down together, along with their chick, in the nest box or the roost.

The egg that Towich and Sulu produced this year was expected to hatch here at the Safari Park sometime around mid-April, but plans change. It was determined that their egg would be sent to the Los Angeles Zoo, along with another of our eggs, and that we would receive two Los Angeles Zoo eggs to hatch here. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which oversees the California Condor Recovery Program, analyzed the free-flying condor population and decided that the two eggs produced at the Safari Park would be good candidates to eventually release in California and that the two Los Angeles Zoo eggs would be better to release at the site in Baja California, Mexico. We were asked to raise the two chicks destined for Mexico, hence the exchange with the Los Angeles Zoo.

Sometimes it can get confusing trying to plan (or explain!) egg exchanges, but it’s all to ensure that we are maximizing genetic diversity among the California condor population, not just in the breeding facilities but at the release sites as well. We received good news from the Los Angeles condor keepers that Towich and Sulu’s egg successfully hatched on April 19, 2014!

Of the two eggs that we received from the Los Angeles Zoo, one hatched on April 12 under two birds familiar to Condor Cam viewers: Sisquoc and Shatash. After their original egg failed to hatch, we kept them sitting on their fake egg (a dummy egg) to keep them in breeding mode, just in case another egg needed to be hatched. Normally, condors incubate their egg for about 56 days until it hatches. If it does not hatch for any reason, they will sit for a little while longer before abandoning the egg. Sisquoc and Shatash were very attentive and sat for a whopping 80 days until their foster egg hatched! The chick is doing very well and is growing quickly, thanks to Sisquoc and Shatash’s devotion.

The second Los Angeles egg was fostered to Towich and Sulu. We were hoping that it would hatch live on Condor Cam, but to follow this year’s theme, plans changed. The embryo in this egg wasn’t positioned quite right in the shell, making hatching on its own very unlikely. We cut a hole in the shell, allowing the chick to breathe more easily. When it looked strong enough, we exchanged the dummy egg in Towich and Sulu’s nest with this newly pipped egg. They bonded immediately to the egg, tending to it faithfully. The next day, on April 29, while they were eating in the pen, we sneaked into the nest to break off some of the shell, simulating a natural hatch. After we were able to evaluate the chick’s health, we carefully placed it back in the empty shell and set it back in the nest. Within 30 minutes, Towich and Sulu removed the chick from the shell and started taking care of it. So far, the chick looks great and can now be seen on Condor Cam!

Fostering is a common technique used in avian breeding. The parents usually accept the new egg and hatch it and raise the chick as if it was their own. This process is very valuable in the California Condor Recovery Program, increasing the opportunities to release parent-reared birds to the wild. Also, fostering allows pairs that lose their eggs, for any reason, to successfully raise a chick together. Repeated success in a nest strengthens the bond between the two parents. Too many failures often lead to the pair squabbling and ultimately dissolving their bond.

Have fun watching Towich and Sulu raise their foster chick this season. They are great parents and should provide you with lots of fun viewing opportunities! We will offer blog updates explaining the chick’s growth process and will try to answer any questions you may have.

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

3

Condor Egg Fails to Hatch

This dummy egg looks just like a real California condor egg and serves as a placeholder.

This dummy egg looks just like a real California condor egg and serves as a placeholder.

As keepers, we often have the privilege to witness or even help usher in a new hatch or birth into the world. Of course, working alongside our excellent veterinary staff, we provide assistance and supportive care to maximize survivability, but sadly, sometimes it isn’t enough. We experienced this recently at our California condor breeding facility at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park when one of our condor eggs failed to hatch. This egg was expected to hatch under our experienced Condor Cam parents, Sisquoc and Shatash, who for the last two years have raised their chicks, Saticoy and Cuyamaca, under the watchful and adoring eyes of thousands of their fans. Saticoy is now flying free in Southern California, and Cuyamaca was recently sent to Arizona to be prepared for release there.

We usually remove the egg after it is laid so we can artificially incubate it and monitor its development without disturbing the very protective parents. While we are caring for the real egg, we give the parents a fake egg (called a dummy egg) to incubate. This dummy egg serves as a placeholder until the real egg is ready to hatch; without it, the parents would not accept the real egg when we would try to replace it in their nest.

While we were caring for Sisquoc and Shatash’s egg, we weighed it daily to track its weight loss, and we candled it periodically to monitor development inside the shell. During incubation, we noticed that the embryo was slightly in the wrong position to hatch—a malposition. Some malpositions are lethal or need our help to hatch successfully. This embryo’s malposition was not extreme and would not normally need our assistance. What was more concerning was the condition of the membranes surrounding the embryo: loose and saggy when they should have been taut. Concern grew that these membranes would cause difficulty in breathing for the embryo once it moved into the egg’s air cell to begin pulmonary respiration. The loose membranes could adhere to the embryo’s nostrils, suffocating it.

Despite 24-hour care from our keepers and a valiant effort from our veterinary staff, the embryo stopped breathing partway through the hatching process on Sunday, March 16, 2014. The egg was expected to hatch around March 20. The embryo and egg are now at our Pathology Lab; hopefully, we will have more information regarding the cause of death.

Egg mortality is highest at the beginning and at the end of the egg’s incubation period. Sometimes there can be a genetic issue causing the embryo to stop developing. Sometimes the egg can get too hot or too cold during incubation, the egg can get jostled, humidity can be too high or too low, etc. Despite setbacks such as this, our “hatchability” rate at the Safari Park is still very high at over 85% success, much higher than wild eggs that have to contend with nest predators, competitors, and a lack of veterinary support.

So, what’s next for Sisquoc and Shatash? They are still incubating their dummy egg perfectly and are being considered as potential foster parents if another condor egg needs to be parent-reared. They will still sit on the dummy egg, even after the due date of their original egg, but only for about a month or so. After that, they will start to tend to the egg less. We see this behavior in birds that are incubating an infertile egg or an egg that died during incubation. If another condor egg needs to be foster-reared, we can return that egg to their nest, and they will hatch it and raise it as their own. Their drive to care for an egg/chick is so strong that they don’t know or care if it’s not their egg. If another egg doesn’t need fostering, we will remove the dummy egg from their nest. They will then shift from nest-caring duties and spend more time in their flight pen. It may seem sad, but that is what happens to wild birds whose eggs do not hatch.

What’s next for Condor Cam? We have moved the camera to a different nest to show you another of our awesome condor pairs, Sulu and Towich, whose egg is due mid-April. Stay tuned for a blog introducing the new pair.

Thanks so much for all of the comments and condolences regarding the loss of Sisquoc and Shatash’s egg. There are still 30 other California condors at the Safari Park that need us to give them the best care we can. With hope, luck, and your support, we can continue to maximize success for these magnificent birds!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post,
Egg-citing News on Condor Cam
.

3

Preparing for Condor Breeding Season

A California condor spreads it magnificent wings.

A California condor spreads it magnificent wings.

Even though there are currently no condor chicks to feed or eggs to care for, this is still a hectic time at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s condor breeding facility. In order to maximize success for the breeding pairs and their chicks, we try to conduct all of our maintenance work in the “off season,” which lasts from mid-October to the beginning of December. We don’t want to cause unnecessary disturbances during egg production, incubation, or chick-rearing. The chicks are usually moved from the parents’ pens by October, and the new courtship season is in full swing by December, so that short period is the time we are busy with a multitude of tasks, preparing for the next season.

We have been making our yearly repairs: replacing wood that may have been chewed by curious condors, securing perches, fixing leaky pool valves, repairing shift pen doors, and adding visual barriers to better hide human activity to newly fledged chicks that may be released to the wild someday. We also try to weed the majority of the flight pens, opening up area on the ground so the parents can forage for food and small bones in preparation for egg laying. The trees and shrubs also get pruned so video camera access does not become obscured, and our pen and nest cameras get serviced and cleaned. Lastly, and most importantly, the condors get their routine health exams.

Exams are conducted every three years. This year, 11 out of our 31 condors were due for exams. During these exams by our veterinary staff, a number of procedures are completed. Blood samples are taken to test for any potential diseases. A full body inspection is conducted, examining the tail, wings, feather condition, heart rate, respiration rate, eyes, ears, and mouth. If any wing tags need to be replaced, we do it at this time; the next time you see Sisquoc or Towich on camera, you may notice their nice, new wing tags! A fecal sample is submitted to the lab to test for any parasites. And finally, the birds are weighed before being released back into their flight pens.

Condor Cam viewers have noticed that the nest boxes have barriers preventing the condors from entering them. We have been changing the soiled substrate in the nests so that when the next breeding season begins, the nests are clean. Normally, in the wild, a condor pair can have several nest sites within its breeding territory, and the parents don’t always nest in the same cave every year. By changing nest sites, this allows the used nest to dry out and, hopefully, eliminate any nest hazards (insects, parasites, diseases, etc.) before the pair decides to nest in it again, preventing any potential health threats to a newly hatched chick. Since we only have one nesting cavity in our condor pens at the Safari Park, we clean the nests every year: we scrub and repaint the walls and change the sand.

The condors can now settle into the new season. Courtship displays should start occurring with more regularity throughout December. The male will display to the female with wings either partially or fully outstretched; his head will be arched, and his mouth will usually be open. Sometimes he may display with a feather or some food in his beak. He will sway back and forth and will walk toward or around the female, almost like he is in a trance. The female may tug at his feathers or the skin on his neck or face. Breeding can be observed throughout December and January. You can recognize this activity when the male is standing on the female’s back and he’s flapping his wings to keep his balance. This is usually very quick in smaller birds, but for condors, it can last for several minutes. Lastly, eggs are laid anytime between early January and mid-April. One of the females at the Safari Park has been laying her first egg of the season in late December for the past two years – very early for California condors!

Of course, we’ll keep you posted about any eggs as they are laid here at the Safari Park, so you can prepare to meet our next little Condor Cam superstar. Enjoy the season!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Saticoy Flies into the Wild!

11

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!

9

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!