The first step in this process is to separate the parents from the chick. Of course, the foster parents (father Towich and mother Sulu) don’t want any invaders in the nest and do their best to defend the chick and keep it safe, as all good parents do. Adjacent to the flight pen, we have a shift pen, used to safely and calmly move large or dangerous animals from one area to another. We offer all of the condors’ diet in the shift pen, so Towich and Sulu are very comfortable entering the shift pen for every meal. We shifted Towich into the pen and kept him there until after the exam. From his shift pen, he cannot see the nest area, so he was unaware that we were even in his nest, thus keeping him very calm. He ate and waited patiently until he had access back into his flight pen.
Sulu was not shifted but instead was able to see us go into her nest. We posted one keeper in the nest entryway to keep Sulu out, while another keeper entered the nest and covered the little chick with a towel. This is the first time that the 45-day-old chick had ever seen a person and was understandably nervous and defensive, hissing and lunging at the intruder. Once under the cover of the towel, the chick could not see and calmed down. It was then brought into the adjoining vestibule where our veterinarian staff was waiting.
First, the veterinarian obtained a blood sample from the chick’s leg. This sample was sent to the lab to make sure that the chick is healthy. Also, our geneticists can determine if it is male or female from this sample. Next, a vaccine for West Nile virus was administered and a microchip was injected under the chick’s skin. The veterinarian did a quick health assessment, checking the chick’s eyes, nares (nostrils), beak, feet, legs, wings, and abdomen. Lastly, we weighed the chick to make sure it was growing on schedule.
While the exam took place, a third keeper was able to enter the nest to clean the camera domes and make sure there were no hazards in the nest cavity. The whole exam, from capture to release, took about 10 minutes.
Once the exam was over, the chick was returned to the nest and Sulu was allowed to approach and check on her baby. The chick was rightfully disturbed by this process, despite our best intentions to minimize stress. Although we feel bad that the chick was so nervous, it is actually good that it was not comfortable in our presence. We have to keep in mind that we don’t want the young condor to become accustomed to or feel reassured by humans; we want it to be a wild condor, uninterested and wary of humans, so that it may someday fly free in California, Arizona, or Mexico. Condors that show an affinity for humans seldom survive in the wild.
For several minutes, the chick showed a defensive posture, hissing at everything it saw, even its mother. Sulu slowly approached her chick and calmly preened it, eventually soothing it. That is the reason we shifted only one parent; we wanted the other parent present to calm the chick after the exam. After only about two minutes, the chick was showing proper begging behavior, resulting in a feeding session from Sulu. With everyone appearing calmer, Towich was let out of his shift pen. About five minutes after that, he approached the nest to peek in on the chick and to perch in the adjoining roost area.
So far, the health exam looks to have been successful. Hopefully, the blood work will show that the chick is healthy. The veterinarian’s initial inspection revealed that the chick’s eyes and nares were clear, the feet, legs, and wings were solid, and its vitality was very strong. The chick weighed 6.8 pounds (3.10 kilograms) and was about the size of a bowling ball. We hope to receive the sex results from the Genetics Lab soon. When we do, we’ll let you know if the chick is a male or a female.
Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Condor Chick Fostering: 30 to 45 Days.