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condor chicks

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.

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!

5

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.