Uncategorized

condor chick

5

Condor Chick Ready to Fledge

The Condor Cam caught Su'nan perched on the ledge.

Su’nan is perched on the barrier between the nest box and the roost area.

As many Condor Cam viewers have experienced, the rearing process for a California condor can be long and slow. It makes sense, though, for a condor to develop so slowly. She has lots of growing to do! When our chick, Su’nan, hatched on April 29, she weighed approximately 6.3 ounces (180 grams). When she reaches her fledge weight of 17 pounds (8 kilograms) or more, she will have increased her hatch weight by 44 times! In contrast, I have only increased my birth weight by 19 times.

On August 27, at 121 days of age, Su’nan took her most recent step toward leaving the nest: she jumped up onto the barrier between her nest box and the adjoining roost area. She quickly hopped back into her nest, but that’s okay. There’s no hurry to fledge, or leave the nest, just yet. Her feathers still need time to fill in. Hopping up and down from the barrier will exercise her muscles, as well as improve her balance. She has since started hopping into the roost area on the other side of the barrier. Here, she can warm herself in the sun, if she chooses.

Su'nan stretches out one of her fast-growing wings.

Su’nan stretches out one of her fast-growing wings.

While out in the roost, she can also rest or sleep in the shade, perch with her parents (if they are not perched out in the flight pen), or step out to the roost ledge to soak up the sun’s rays for the first time. The ledge is about 8 feet (2.4 meters) from the ground—high enough to make the parents feel comfortable and secure in their nest but not as high as a condor nest in the wild. Su’nan may get near the edge, but she will be cautious in doing so, so she doesn’t teeter off. It is natural for condor chicks to explore and exercise on the edge of their nest cavities. Rarely do they fall out; in 32 years of raising California condors here at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, we have never seen a chick fall from its nest area.

The next step of Su’nan’s development will be to fledge. When she is ready, she will jump off of the nest ledge. She will either slow her fall to the ground below the ledge or fly to a nearby perch. We consider her fledged when she can get up on a perch by herself. The youngest we have seen a condor chick fledge here at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is 123 days old. Sometimes chicks have waited until over 165 days. It all depends on the chick.

She's made it to the other side!

She’s made it to the other side!

The parents tend to be very vigilant during this phase of their chick’s development. It could appear overprotective 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. They usually don’t coax or pressure their chick to leave the nest; on the contrary, we have seen parents make sure a chick doesn’t stray too far from the nest if it’s not ready yet. The parents will usually perch and/or roost near the fledgling.

They also will join her when she finally starts going to the feeding area of the flight pen. Most of the time, though, they will push her aside and eat first, feeding her when they are done. In condor culture, the bigger, more dominant birds usually eat first, while the subordinate birds wait their turn. The earlier Su’nan learns this from her parents, the better she will assimilate into a wild population after she is released. Don’t worry: Towich and Sulu won’t let Su’nan starve. They will continue to feed her even when she is out in the flight pen. Eventually, she will eat more and more on her own.

Her foster parents keep her company in the roost area.

Her foster parents keep her company in the roost area.

Depending on Su’nan’s development and activity levels, we will try to 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 she can either drink on her 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 her to our presence. We have found that chicks raised in isolation from humans tend to be more successful once they are released to the wild. The flight pen won’t look as nice as an exhibit you might see at the Zoo or the Safari Park, but Towich and Sulu 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 girl” spreads her wings and takes that next step. Rest assured, though, that Su’nan’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 Foster: Name is Chosen!

8

Condor Cam Chick Needs Name

Name the Condor ChickHatched on April 29, a small condor chick emerged into the world observed closely by animal care staff at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Adding to the more than 180 condors hatched at the Safari Park since the breeding program began in 1982, the little chick was placed with adult condors Sulu and Towich so they could raise it to adulthood. Its growth has been watched by thousands of people through a live Condor Cam placed in the nest box. Now animal care staff are asking these interested watchers to help choose a name for the young female bird.

Viewers can go online at http://bit.ly/condorname to vote for one of five suggested names. In keeping with the tradition of the condor program, the names have been selected from the Kumeyaay language. The name receiving the most votes will be used for the chick for the rest of its life. Voting closes at end of day on July 20.

“California condors are an important native species in the western United States and hold a special place not only in the ecosystem but in the culture of the people native to this area,” said Michael Mace, curator of birds at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. “By giving condors names from the Kumeyaay language, we hope to honor the role of condors in human culture throughout history.”

At more than 2 months of age, the condor chick is covered with fluffy, gray feathers and is still closely cared for by its foster parents. The young bird will continue to grow and mature over the next couple of months until its flight feathers grow in and it is ready to leave the nest. Animal care staff at the Safari Park hope that the chick will be able to take its place among the wild populations that have been released in California, Arizona and Mexico.

CONTACT: SAN DIEGO ZOO GLOBAL PUBLIC RELATIONS, 619-685-3291

2

Condor Chick Fostering: 1 Week to 1 Month

The condor chick is staying cool today!

The condor chick is staying cool today!

At two to three weeks of age, the real fun of condor chick-viewing begins! (See previous post, Condor Chick Fostering: Week 1) Our Condor Cam chick is getting bigger, weighing between 17 and 42 ounces (500 and 1,200 grams), and can often be seen poking its head out from under a parent’s wings. Towich and Sulu might be spending less time sitting on their foster chick, weather permitting, leaving it unattended for longer periods of time, possibly 30 minutes or so. Never fear! They are nearby, often just out of the camera’s view, just a few feet away.

It is usually easier to observe feeding behavior at this age, as well. Sulu or Towich stand a little to the side of the chick now, so you may catch a glimpse of food actually being transferred from parent to chick. The chick’s crop may be visible as a bald patch of skin when it’s full. It is between the size of a golf ball and a tennis ball. You will also witness a very common behavior called wing-begging; the chick is begging for food, flapping one or both of its stubby little wings and bobbing its head excitedly. This behavior can persist until after the chick fledges, or leaves its nest, at four to five months.

The chick hatched wearing a fluffy coat of white down feathers. The main function of down is insulation; it can either keep a bird cool or warm, whatever its body needs. At this stage, the chick’s white down is starting to transition to gray. Sometimes this can make the chick look dirty or scruffy, but it is still as healthy as it ever has been. It and the parents are frequently grooming the feathers to make sure they are working the way they should be. These dark feathers also help the chick blend in with the substrate and the nest cave walls, since Towich and Sulu are not covering the chick as much as they were.

You may have noted that the chick looks like it has scabs on its head/neck or has wounds on its body, matting its down feathers. This is actually regurgitated food stuck to its face or body. Feeding can be quite exciting for the chick, and some food doesn’t always end up in its mouth! The chick obviously can’t take a bath at this age, but the food will dries up, gets crusty, and flakes off, a major benefit of having a bald head! Anyone who has seen the adult condors eat on exhibit at Condor Ridge at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park or Elephant Odyssey at the San Diego Zoo can attest to the condors’ ability to keep clean after a messy meal. Also, the presence of flies in the nest is nothing to worry about. Keep in mind that condors are carnivores, feed their chicks via regurgitation, and nest in cavities (caves, crevices, etc.) that are often sheltered from the wind. All of these components add up to a very comfortable environment for flies as well as condors. Yet condors have excellent immune systems and are only mildly annoyed by the flies!

As of this writing, our Condor Cam chick is a little over two weeks old. At three weeks of age, it can start to thermo-regulate, or control its own body temperature. This is when its devoted foster parents can start leaving the chick on its own during the day. Depending on the ambient temperature, the chick may be seen shivering or panting in an effort to warm or cool itself. Also, on warm days, the chick may inflate the air sacs in its chin and neck to cool down. Air sac inflation can also occur after a particularly filling meal. Often, Sulu or Towich may spend time in the nest with the chick, but they may not necessarily sit on the chick.

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

As the parents start leaving the chick alone for longer periods of time, it will be easier to watch the chick when it sleeps. Just like all growing youngsters, condor chicks sleep A LOT. With longer legs and gawky bodies, they often are sprawled out, wings askew, in odd positions when they sleep. Do not worry! The chick is perfectly fine.

At approximately 1 month of age, the chick should weigh around 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms). The parents may start leaving the chick alone overnight, sleeping near the nest. If the weather turns cool or it’s raining, the parents may continue to brood overnight. Even though the parents are increasing their time away from the chick, they remain VERY vigilant and protective of their nest and, especially, their chick.

Happy viewing, and thanks so much for your support!

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

1

Favorite Bird Moments: Father and Fledge

The Zoo's Andean condor chick surveys its home.

The Zoo’s Andean condor chick surveys its home.

The Zoo’s Bird Department has known that the Andean condors Vultur gryphus on Eagle Trail had a fuzzy chick since April. On September 23, 2013, I got to see the chick leave the cave nest and become a fledgling! Earlier that day, the chick had been moving around the cave and was seen standing near the opening. It wasn’t until the day’s waning at 6 p.m. that the chick finally decided to come out and explore its enclosure.

I was working the evening shift and was lucky enough to be walking nearby when a fluffy brown object caught my eye. The adult Andean condors in the exhibit are mostly black, so I knew either a huge brown cotton ball had somehow gotten into the exhibit, or the condor chick had finally flown the coop! As it turned out, the chick didn’t feel comfortable actually flying but instead chose to investigate by hopping around the grass and rocks.

Initially, both Mom and Dad watched the fledgling from their perches high in the exhibit. It wasn’t until the fledge tried—and failed—to climb the large rock near the front of the exhibit that Dad flew down. I paid close attention to the adult’s behavior, curious myself as to how he would act toward the young bird now that it had left the nest. To my delight, Dad walked up to the fledgling and showed it how to climb the large rock to the top! At the summit, Father and fledge spent a few minutes looking around together before the adult took flight back to his nightly perch, leaving the youngster to continue its exploration.

Mike Grue is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Favorite Bird Moments: Splashing and Bug Collecting.

0

Condor Chick: Nest Barrier

Condor chick Cuyamaca as seen on Condor Cam

Condor chick Cuyamaca as seen on Condor Cam

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; she has lots of growing to do! When our chick, Cuyamaca, hatched, she weighed approximately 6.3 ounces (180 grams). When she reaches her fledge weight of 17 pounds (8 kilograms) or more, she will have increased her hatch weight by 44 times! I, myself, have only increased my birth weight by 19 times.

On July 15, at 112 days of age, Cuyamaca took her most recent step toward leaving the nest: she jumped up onto the barrier between her nest box and the adjoining roost area. She quickly hopped back into her nest, but that’s okay. There’s no hurry to fledge, or leave the nest, just yet. Her feathers still need time to fill in. In the meantime, hopping up and down from the barrier will exercise her muscles and improve her balance. Any day now, she will hop into the roost area on the other side of the barrier. Here, she can look into the flight pen where her parents, Sisquoc and Shatash, are. She also will be able to warm herself in the sun, if she so chooses.

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

The parents tend to be very vigilant at 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. They usually don’t coax or pressure their chick to leave the nest; on the contrary, we have seen parents make sure their chick doesn’t stray too far from the nest if it’s not ready yet. The parents will usually perch and/or roost near the fledgling. They also will join her when she finally starts going to the feeding area of the flight pen. Most of the time, though, they will push her aside and eat first, feeding her when they are done. In condor culture, the bigger, more dominant birds usually eat first while the subordinate birds wait their turn. The earlier Cuyamaca learns this from her parents, the better she will assimilate into a wild population after she is released. Don’t worry—Sisquoc and Shatash won’t let Cuyamaca starve! They will continue to feed her even when she is out in the flight pen. Eventually, she will eat more and more on her own.

Depending on Cuyamaca’s development and activity levels, we will try to 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 she can either drink on her 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 her to our presence. We have found that chicks raised in isolation from humans tend to be more successful once they are released to the wild. The flight pen won’t look as nice as an exhibit you might see at the 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 girl” spreads her wings and takes that next step. Rest assured, though, that Cuyamaca’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: Exercising Those Wings.

4

New Condor Chick in Mexico

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

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

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

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

Juan rappels to the condors' nest.

Juan rappels to the condors’ nest.

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

The chick looks healthy and well cared for.

The chick looks healthy and well cared for.

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

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

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

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

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

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

2

Condor Chick Watching: Age 2 to 3 Weeks

The chick on April 12

The chick on April 12

At two to three weeks of age, the real fun of condor chick-viewing begins! The chick is getting bigger, weighing between 500 and 1,200 grams (1.1 and 2.6 pounds) and can often be seen poking its head out from under a parent’s wing. The parents might be spending less time sitting on the chick, weather permitting, leaving it unattended for longer periods of time, possibly 30 minutes or so. Never fear! They are nearby, often just out of Condor Cam’s view, 6 to 8 feet (1.8 to 2.4 meters) away.

It is usually easier to observe feeding behavior at this age as well. The parents stand a little to the side of the chick now, so you may catch a glimpse of food being transferred from parent to chick. The chick’s crop (the bulge in the esophagus where food is stored) may be visible when it’s full. It is between the size of a golf ball and a tennis ball and is a bald patch of skin. You will also witness a very common behavior called wing begging: the chick begs for food by flapping one or both of its stubby little wings and bobbing its head excitedly. This behavior can persist until after the chick fledges, or leaves its nest, at four to five months.

The chick hatched wearing a fluffy coat of white down feathers. The main function of down is insulation to keep a bird cool or warm, whatever its body needs. At this stage, the chick’s white down is starting to transition to gray. Sometimes this can make the chick look dirty or scruffy, but it is still as healthy as it ever has been. Both chick and parents frequently groom the feathers to make sure they are working the way they should be. These dark feathers also help the chick blend in with the substrate and the nest cave walls, since the parents are not covering the chick as much as they recently were.

Some viewers have noted that the chick looks like it has scabs on its head/neck or has wounds on its body, matting its down feathers. This is actually regurgitated food stuck to its face or body. Feeding can be quite exciting for the chick, and some food doesn’t always end up in its mouth! The chick obviously can’t take a bath at this age, but the food dries up, gets crusty, and flakes off, a major benefit of having a bald head! If you’ve seen the big condors eat at Condor Ridge at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park or Elephant Odyssey at the San Diego Zoo, you can attest to the condors’ ability to keep clean after a messy meal. Also, the presence of flies in the nest is nothing to worry about. Keep in mind that condors are carnivores, feed their chicks via regurgitation, and nest in cavities (caves, crevices, etc.) that are often sheltered from the wind. All of these components add up to a very comfortable environment for flies as well as condors. Never fear: condors have excellent immune systems and are only mildly annoyed by the flies!

Happy viewing, and thanks so much for your support!

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

5

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.

2

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.

4

Boy or Girl? Genetic Testing

Saticoy's PCR products in an agarose gel

On March 10, thousands of Condor Cam viewers watched as an endangered California condor chick emerged from its shell. The chick, named Saticoy by an online vote, is still being followed by thousands of people on Wildlife Conservancy’s Condor Cam. As viewers watched the downy chick grow, many wondered if they should call Saticoy “he” or “she.” That’s where the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research’s Genetics Division comes in.

California condors are sexually monomorphic, and it’s not possible to tell the male and female birds apart. It is important for management purposes, however, to know early on the gender of a newly hatched condor. Initially, determination of bird gender involved a highly invasive examination, but genetics techniques have allowed for less invasive sexing since the California condor recovery program began in the early 1980s, and with current methods, we can determine a condor’s sex using only a small drop of blood, a feather, or even a piece of eggshell membrane.

Our Genetics Division has genetically determined the sex of over 170 condors hatched at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, as well as all other condors hatched at collaborating institutions or in the wild. But we don’t stop there. In addition to condors, we determine the sex of several other bird species for San Diego Zoo Global collaborative recovery programs, including San Clemente loggerhead shrikes and four species of native Hawaiian birds. This important practice supports animal care managers and field biologists in their efforts to develop sustainable populations of endangered species.

The process of sexing Saticoy began when we received a small blood sample from the chick’s first health exam performed by veterinarians at the Safari Park (see post Condor Chick: First Health Exam). Only a single drop of blood (about 10 microliters) is needed to perform gender determination using genetic techniques. First, the DNA is extracted from the blood cells by placing the cells into a tube, exposing them to enzymes, and incubating them in a water bath to release the DNA contained within.

After several steps of removing contaminants and washing the sample, pure DNA is available for use in the next step, the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). During PCR amplification, only a small amount of the DNA is required to obtain millions of copies of a particular DNA region of interest, which can then be used for further analyses. Birds have a sex-determination system like the XY system of humans, but in birds, the females are the heterogametic sex with chromosomes ZW, while the males are the homogametic sex with chromosomes ZZ. In the case of sexing condors, we amplify a gene that is found in both males and females and is able to show variation in sequence length between the two female sex chromosomes.

The final step is to run gel electrophoresis to analyze the PCR samples. Here, DNA separates within an agarose gel depending on the size of the DNA fragment produced by PCR. The gene amplified from a female’s W chromosome is longer and produces a different size fragment compared to the DNA fragment produced by the Z chromosome. The males, therefore, show only one band while females show two distinct bands in a gel. As the gel picture shows, Saticoy’s DNA sample produced one band by PCR, and we can then say…it’s a boy!

Heidi Davis is a research coordinator and Asako Yamamoto is a research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.