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condor recovery

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The Condors Next Door

Pshan rubs his head on the roosting platform next to Towich.

Screenshot: Pshan rubs his head on the nest ledge next to Towich.

Normally, at this time of the year, Condor Cam viewing is a little slow. The chick has been moved to our socialization pen in preparation for eventual release to the wild and the parents, Sisquoc and Shatash, won’t start their breeding season until late October/early November. But this year is different! Sisquoc and Shatash’s neighbors are still raising their chick, and we were able to shift the Condor Cam pen camera to peek in on them.

The male is this pair is Towich (pronounced TOH-witch) and the female is Sulu (SOO-loo). Towich is wearing yellow wing tags, numbered 135; 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 recaptured and 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 spend the rest of its life in a cage.

Sulu hatched at the San Diego Zoo 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 chick they are raising this year is Pshan (Puh-SHAWN), and he is 144 days old (as of September 17, 2013). Towich and Sulu are not Pshan’s biological parents, though. Towich and Sulu’s egg was needed at the Los Angeles Zoo this year, so we delivered it to that zoo before hatching. It hatched under a different pair of condors and will eventually be released somewhere in California. Now that Towich and Sulu were without an egg, we had the opportunity to give them a different egg, one that we were planning on raising using a condor puppet. One of our condor pairs is not very good at sharing nesting duties and often squabbles over chicks when they hatch. Therefore, to ensure the safety of the chick, we don’t let that pair parent-rear anymore. Pshan is the chick that hatched from the egg fostered to Towich and Sulu. 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.

Like Sisquoc and Shatash, Towich and Sulu have done an exemplary job in raising their chick. Pshan hatched April 27, 2013, and is about a month younger than Cuyamaca. He is starting to come out onto the nest ledge more often. By the end of the month, he should be ready to fledge, or leave the nest. At that point, he will receive his wing tag and be moved to the socialization pen to be introduced to Cuyamaca and the other chicks from this year.

Many Condor Cam viewers have requested photos of Cuyamaca in her new pen. We, hopefully, will be posting some soon. She is handling the socialization process like a champ.

Also, we received word from the field biologists at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge recently. Saticoy, the Condor Cam chick from last season (and Cuyamaca’s older brother), has not been released to the wild yet. He is doing very well in the pre-release pen and should be flying free by the end of September! When this happens, we’ll let you know and, we hope, will have some pictures to show you, too.

Have fun with Towich, Sulu, and Pshan!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Condor Moving Day.

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Condor Cam: The Proud Parents

Sisquoc is an experienced father.

We’re excited to offer a unique view into a California condor’s nest via our new Condor Cam. I’d like to share a bit of information to help you enjoy what you’re seeing and how to tell “who’s who” on the Cam. If you have any questions about what you’re seeing, feel free to ask them in the “Comments” section at the end of this post, and we’ll do our best to provide answers.

The male condor in this pair is named Sisquoc (pronounced “SISS-kwawk”), and he is wearing yellow wing tags (#28). The female is called Shatash (pronounced “shah-TAHSH”); she is not wearing any wing tags. Sisquoc is the largest California condor at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, weighing in at 25 pounds (11 kilograms). He is visibly larger than Shatash.

At 2 weeks old, Sisquoc was fed by a keeper wearing a condor puppet.

Sisquoc was the first California condor ever hatched in a zoo (his egg was laid in the wild and brought to the San Diego Zoo for incubation). He emerged from his shell on March 30, 1983, and news of his hatching triggered an outpouring of mail from all over the world. Congratulatory letters were sent by conservationists, zoos, governments, school classrooms, and many individuals, all wanting to help with the condor project. And look at him now—time flies, doesn’t it?

Shatash hatched at the Los Angeles Zoo, one of our partners in the condor recovery program. Her father was the first condor to hatch at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park (again, from a wild-laid egg), back in 1985.
Sisquoc and Shatash have been paired together since 1993. This is their 21st egg. Fifteen chicks have hatched, and Sisquoc and Shatash have raised six of them themselves. The other chicks were raised by keepers who used a condor puppet so the chicks wouldn’t imprint on their human caretakers. Sisquoc and Shatash have proven to be great and reliable parents.

California condors tend to be monogamous and share ALL nest duties: incubating the egg, brooding the chick, feeding the chick, and defending the nest. Throughout incubation you will see Sisquoc and Shatash take turns sitting on the egg to keep it warm. You may see them roll or turn the egg periodically. This gentle egg movement is crucial for the development of the growing embryo.

Incubation bouts can be very short: just a few minutes or birds can sit for two or three days, so don’t be alarmed! Sometimes the parents will sit together in the nest. Condor eggs incubate at about 98 degrees Fahrenheit (36 degrees Celsius). Their egg was laid January 12, 2012, and we are expecting it to “pip,” or start hatching, after 55 days of incubation, around March 7, 2012. We can’t wait!

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

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“Carrion” Research to the Next Level

James holds a California condor egg produced in the wild.

I have been on the trail of the California condor for some years now. And what a trail it is, from shimmering cactus-studded deserts baking under the relentless hammer of the Mexican sun to the desolate jagged beauty of the Sierra Mountains to the ancient alpine forests of northern Baja California, Mexico, crystallized beneath a silencing white shroud of fog and snow. These are the worlds that this mighty vulture surveys from on high with its enormous black wings, extraordinary eyesight, and an inquisitive and engaging intelligence.

As remarkable and inspiring as the condor and its wild domain are, so too are the heroic efforts of San Diego Zoo Global and its many dedicated partners that have struggled for decades to haul this unique species back from the abyss of extinction. And from a population of just 22 birds at their lowest ebb in the 1980s, this year we have reached a landmark 400 wild and captive condors.

I joined the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research to provide vital information on the social behaviors, movement patterns, and habitat requirements of the condors that we are reintroducing to their former range in Baja California. Collecting data on free-ranging condors is notoriously difficult. Fortunately, I am equipped with the latest cutting-edge technologies that have opened an unprecedented window onto condor behaviors within their natural environment.

A GPS device attached to the condor's wing provides researchers with valuable information about the bird's flight patterns.

Miniature GPS devices attached to the bird’s wings continuously acquire and transmit data on their flight patterns. An array of weather stations positioned throughout the condor’s range provides detailed information on the meteorological conditions that influence their movement. Analysis of satellite imagery and digital topographic models of the condor’s environment enables me to construct a detailed picture of their habitat use and requirements.

Remote video cameras installed at condor feeding stations allow me to observe and analyze their social interactions without having to wait in the field or disturb the birds with my presence. The science of ecology is being driven by these examples of technological advances, and San Diego Zoo Global prides itself on being a leader in the application of state-of-the-art techniques for conservation research.

My studies have confirmed that condors range hundreds of miles in a single day while exploring and searching for food carcasses and that these flights are typically conducted by subadults before they settle into core home ranges. Condors are able to fly for long periods without expending much energy by harnessing the strong thermal winds generated by mountains and ridgelines to soar with the efficiency of an albatross. Condors also possess a remarkable spatial memory map, returning from long-distance flights directly back to their communal roosts.

There is still hope for this magnificent bird.

I have found myself amazed by condor curiosity and playfulness, as well as the complexity of their tight-knit society. Birds that do not develop appropriate social behaviors at an early age do not successfully integrate into condor society, and such ostracism results in their early demise from predation or starvation. By characterizing the dynamics of condor “pecking orders,” I have determined which attributes confer high or low dominance status. I have learned that each bird has a personality, and condors act much like human teenagers and politicians—continuously jostling and squabbling for rank, resources, and respect.

Some have argued that disproportionate levels of resources are directed toward condor recovery. Indeed, after a field season of freezing temperatures, putrid carcasses, and obstreperous equipment, I have on occasion questioned my own involvement. However, when you stand on a mountaintop or a canyon and this magnificent buzzard with its 9-foot wingspan suddenly swoops over you and completely owns the sky, all sense of doubt immediately evaporates and is replaced with awe, admiration, and hope—hope for the survival of the species and hope that future generations will also have the opportunity to experience condors in the wild. In an age of extinction and loss, the condor is a vital link to our increasingly diminished ecological heritage, an iconic expression of evolution’s genius, and a much-needed example of a conservation success story.

James Sheppard is an ecologist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Wild Condor Chick Gets Own TV Show.

View our own California condors on our new Condor Cam!