Although she occasionally ducks into the nest box area, Antiki now spends most of her time practicing her flying skills outside.

We have switched the camera view of the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Condor Cam. Our faithful viewers have been able to watch our California condor chick, Antiki, hatch and grow in her nest box, but now they can view her out in her flight pen with her parents, father Sisquoc and mother Shatash, because she’s taken the next exciting step in her development—Antiki has fledged!

Fledging is the process in which a young bird leaves the nest. We consider a California condor chick to be fledged when they can fly to the higher perches in the pen—approximately 10 feet off the ground. When condor chicks fledge, they tend to be around 140 or 150 days old. The youngest bird to fledge here at the Safari Park was 123 days old. Antiki flew for the first time at 156 days of age.

Our condor nest boxes are elevated; they’re on the second floor of the condor breeding facility. The nests have one entrance that leads to the roost area. The entrance has an 18-inch barrier at the base to prevent young hatchlings from wandering out of our camera’s view. This barrier also provides exercise for the chick when it is big enough to start jumping up onto the barrier. The roost area is open to the flight pen and has a ledge that is about eight feet off of the ground. There is a five-inch-diameter pole leaning from the ground to the ledge; we call this the “pole ladder.” The condors can walk up or down this pole ladder to get to or from the nest. They can, of course, fly to the nest as well if they desire.

For a few weeks, Antiki was able to walk down the pole ladder to start exploring the flight pen. She would watch Sisquoc and Shatash eat, sometimes begging for them to feed her, sometimes playing tug-of-war trying to take food from them. She also got to drink from the pool for the first time. She would climb up onto an eight-foot-tall stump perch and up into the olive tree in the pen. She started to spend the night out in the pen, perched up in the tree, under the watchful eyes of her parents.

We still had not seen her actually fly to any of the perches, though, until September 13. That morning, after being warmed by the sun, she took a short flight from the olive tree to join Sisquoc on one of the 10-foot-tall perches. After that, she could deftly fly from perch to perch like a pro! Since that morning, Antiki spends the majority of the time out in the pen, sometimes returning to sit in the shade of the roost.

When condor chicks fledge in the wild, it can be a long process as well. They will often walk around the mouth of their nest cave, hopping about, testing their wings. They may hop or climb into nearby shrubs or trees to get a better vantage point. Very seldom do chicks just spring forth from their nest into the wild blue yonder. They usually need to exercise and develop their abilities before embarking on such a dangerous venture. Mom and dad are always present to escort or protect the chicks. Parent condors can be very vigilant and defensive of their chicks. After all, much energy and many resources went into producing just this one chick, so they try very hard to ensure success for their only nestling. One pair of condors in California actually chased a black bear away from their nest!

With this new camera view, you’ll be able to see the roost area, most of the perches in the pen, the feeding area (shift pen), shade areas created by plants, and the pool. The view is wide, so detail is a bit harder to discern. Also, we do minimal maintenance in the pen, 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 Antiki 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 Safari Park or the Zoo, but Sisquoc and Shatash prefer it that way, if it means we stay away from their precious chick!

If, by chance, you don’t see Antiki out in the pen, she could be resting in the shade of the roost, or she may have hopped back into the nest box. This is completely normal. The adult condors do the same thing. Just give her a little time; she’ll come back out into view later. We have a great volunteer staff that moves the camera for the nest box view, but we keepers move the camera when it is the pen view. We’ll do our best to zoom in to give you a good view of her when we can, but we are not always near the camera controls as we are also taking care of the other condors.

So what’s next for Antiki? She’ll stay in the pen with her parents for a little while longer. She is still learning from them. In the wild, condor chicks stay with or around their parents for up to 18 months. We don’t let them stay that long here at the Park. If we did, the next breeding season would probably be compromised; the presence of the fledgling may prevent the parents from breeding the next year, or the parents may act aggressively towards the chick if they try to nest again. Sometime in this fall, Antiki will be removed from her parents, so they can prepare for the next breeding season. She will be introduced to other birds her age in a group with an adult bird that acts as a behavioral mentor. In the meantime, it will be decided whether she will be a candidate for release to the wild (and where) or held for the captive breeding program. I’ll keep you informed when this happens. Until then, please continue to keep checking in on our big girl.

Everyone’s interest and enthusiasm over the hatch and growth of Antiki have been wonderful. We really appreciate all of the comments and questions we have received throughout her development. Thanks again for all of your support—we couldn’t do it without you!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous blog, One Step Closer to Fledging.


CSI: Coronado


Feathers from a California least tern mark the scene of the crime. (Photo by Maggie Lee Post, courtesy Naval Base Coronado)

I never expected to gain detective skills on the California least tern and western snowy plover project. As field biologists, our observation skills are critical in assessing nest success, chick survival, and other aspects of population ecology throughout the season. There are times when we walk up to a nest and something is amiss: the eggs are missing, an egg is punctured, or sometimes we find only pieces of broken egg shell in the nest cup. This is when we get to an interesting aspect of our job: ‘crime scene’ investigation! Many predators try to take advantage of the hundreds of eggs in a tern colony and those in plover nests. We partner up with predator biologists to help solve these cases of nest predation and prevent more from happening.


Can you make out the American crow tracks left at this crime scene? (Photo by Billy Smith, courtesy Naval Base Coronado)

Early in the season this year, when the first nests were being filled in the tern colony, the common raven and American crow (members of the Corvidae family) were the main threats. Clues left at the scene of the crime included tracks, pieces of egg shell, and sometimes even remnants of yolk in and around the nest cup. Once these clever birds figured out that we used small green sticks to mark each well-camouflaged nest, they found several other nests at one site. We quickly changed our marking tactics, and began using sea shells to mark nests.

In the middle of the season, when the tern chicks were reaching that stage when they were just beginning to fly, we saw an increase in predation by raptors. Peregrine falcons and great horned owls were linked to some of the crimes. These skilled hunters make swift kills but leave messy crime scenes containing tracks, feather piles, and sometimes leftover pieces of their prey.

Birds are not the only hunters in the area. Skunks and other small, opportunistic mammals use their keen senses to find and eat tern and plover eggs. Since most of these terrestrial creatures forage around dusk or at night, we are able to detect tracks and other signs during our morning patrol—and we definitely smelled a skunk’s presence at one of the beaches! Skunks are especially problematic because they are capable of digging under the exclosures we place over the plover nests to get to the eggs.

Predator management is no easy task, and the predator biologists do an excellent and professional job. They come up with inventive scare tactics and other methods to alleviate the pressure on our protected birds. Our partnership gives the terns and plovers a chance to incubate their eggs and raise their chicks in peace. This is why I’m out here using my detective skills to help the terns and plovers nest successfully on the beaches of Coronado. Case closed.

Melissa Murillo is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.


One Step Closer To Fledging

Antiki has moved out of the nest box, spending her time on the ledge outside where her parents groom and feed her.

Antiki has moved out of the nest box and is spending her days on the ledge outside where her parents groom and feed her.

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, Antiki, hatched, she weighed approximately 6.35 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 August 6, at 118 days of age, Antiki 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 later hopped back into her nest, but that’s OK. There’s no hurry to fledge, or leave the nest, just yet. Her feathers still need time to fill in all of the way. In the meantime, hopping up and down from the barrier will exercise her muscles, as well as improve her balance. On August 11, she hopped into the roost area on the other side of the barrier for the first time. Here, she can warm herself in the sun, if she so chooses. 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 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. Antiki 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 33 years of raising California condors here at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, we have never seen a chick fall from its nest area prematurely.

The next step of Antiki’s development will be to fledge. When she is ready, she will jump off of the 8-foot-high 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 might 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 that it 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 they will 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 Antiki 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 Antiki 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 Antiki’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 and into the pen. 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 Antiki’s story will be far from over!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous blog, Condor Chick: Getting Big!


Terns, Plovers, and People: Living in Harmony


This beach on Naval Base Coronado is one site where field biologists are studying California least tern and snowy plover populations (U.S. Navy photo by S. McLaughlin, SDZG)

As field biologists, we are lucky to have some of the most beautiful offices in the world. Every day, my coworkers and I get to enjoy long walks on the beach, warm sunshine and the occasional passing dolphin pod. Of course with views like the one in the photo, we are working alongside many other people enjoying a day at the Pacific Ocean. It’s wonderful to see people appreciating the beach habitat we all love so much, especially when it’s done in a respectful and responsible way. So, here are a couple of thoughts from a field biologist.

Both the California least tern and western snowy plover are sensitive to human disturbance. While some bird species will remain on their nest until you are very nearly upon it, terns and plovers seem to hop off at the first sign of danger. Plovers can be seen in the vicinity of the nest, performing the broken-wing display to draw perceived predators away from their nest. Terns take a more aggressive approach, screeching at and dive-bombing anyone that approaches their nest; sometimes several members of the colony will join in to drive the threat away. With the numbers of terns and plovers at critically low levels, it’s important that the birds are able to spend their energy caring for their young, instead of chasing off disturbances.


With chicks this cute and helpless, it’s easy to see why we want to protect California least tern populations. (U.S. Navy photo by S. McLaughlin, SDZG)

The most common instances of disturbance we see out in the field are people walking through the colony and dogs being allowed off leash in areas with nesting birds. In addition to upsetting the adult birds, these types of disturbances can result in trampled eggs and chicks, and stressed-out young. Luckily for all the recreational beach users out there, avoiding creating a disturbance is very easy! The most important step to take is observing and abiding by posted signs. If you are ever approached by a game warden or field biologist, don’t be afraid to ask questions. We love to talk about the terns and plovers, and outreach is an important part of our jobs!

The beaches of southern California and the birds that live there offer amazing opportunities for people to engage with nature. If we enjoy these resources respectfully and responsibly they will hopefully be here for many more years to come.


Stephanie McLaughlin is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.


Plover Hide and Seek


A snowy plover chick’s cryptic coloring helps it hide from predators. (Photo: Rachel Smith, SDZG at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton)

Well it’s finally here, SUMMER! As a born-and-raised San Diegan, I know that one thing is for certain this time of year: the beaches become a popular place to visit for some fun in the sun. Besides having to share the sometimes-crowded beaches with other humans, we need to remember that there are other animals that also live on the beach. I am fortunate to have the opportunity to work with two of those wonderful animals, the threatened western snowy plover and the endangered California least tern.

The snowy plover can be seen year round in San Diego, but the California least tern only comes to our shores during the breeding season, which is April through August. I’m sure if you’ve been anywhere near the tern breeding colonies, you will have seen these small white birds flying around like fighter pilots chasing one another and sounding like storm trooper ray guns. The plovers are small, sandy brown shorebirds with gray legs that hang out in the wrack line of kelp, eating as many bugs as they can get in their bills.


Can you spot the snowy plover chick hiding in this vegetation? Click on the image to enlarge it. (Photo: Rachel Smith, SDZG at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton)

During the summer at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, the beaches are full of plovers and terns nesting and raising their chicks. For both terns and plovers, it takes about four weeks for chicks to be able to fly. Thus, they have to rely on camouflage to evade the eyes of predators; as biologists and monitors, this camouflage can make it challenging for us to locate them. Plover chicks are particularly good at hiding. First off, for lack of a better description, they are adorable. They look like freckled gray cotton balls with legs. Those legs come in handy when evading land predators, especially as the chicks get closer and closer to fledging (meaning they can fly). Their first defense is hiding, especially when they are young, and these little guys are experts at hide and seek.

chick revealv1

There it is! Click on the image for a better look. (Photo: Rachel Smith, SDZG at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton)

We are always keeping an eye out for them, looking for clues based on the behavior of the adult plovers (especially adult males) but we don’t always find them. It’s amazing how well the chicks blend into the sand and vegetation. They practically disappear and you often have to be right over them to see them. Often, our best chance of seeing the chicks when we are out monitoring is using our truck as a makeshift blind to watch for them out foraging around in the dunes and along the water’s edge. Amazingly, the birds do not perceive the truck as a threat and we can get much closer when we are inside the truck than outside of it.

Another technique we use is to blend in by staying a long distance away and using a spotting scope or binoculars to watch the behavior of the adult male (who does the rearing of the chicks) to find out where the chicks are hanging out. Watching these chicks grow up to become fledglings is a real treat, especially when I see them trying out their wings and getting a little air for the first time. It just puts a smile on my face knowing they have made it and are pretty much all grown up.

So, while I’m out with my fellow biologists doing our part to help protect these amazing animals, you as beach goers can do your part by respecting closed beach areas even when it is crowded, and keeping the beaches clean not only for each other but for all the animals that live there too. By doing this you can be a hero for wildlife and go home happy knowing that you are giving plovers and terns a safe place to grow up for future generations to enjoy.

Rachel Smith is a senior research associate at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.


Breeding Strategies: Secretive Plovers & Gregarious Terns

Presenting food to a mate potential  mate is part of the least tern's courtship ritual.

Presenting food to a mate potential mate is part of the least tern’s courtship ritual. (Photo: Rachel Smith, SDZG on MCB Camp Pendleton)

Both least terns and snowy plovers are ground-nesting birds that nest on barren to sparsely vegetated beaches, but they employ quite different breeding strategies. Over the past couple of months, I have been able to observe and compare these strategies while searching for and monitoring their nests.

Least terns are colonial nesters, using a “safety in numbers” approach, whereas snowy plovers use a strategy of nesting separately and being physically cryptic and secretive in behavior. Unlike the least terns, which have bright yellow bills and prominent black caps on their heads, snowy plovers have pale brown upper parts and blend in far better to their sandy surroundings making their nests less conspicuous and less likely to be discovered by predators. This also makes it much harder for us to find snowy plover nests!

If they didn't occur in such concentrations, least tern nests would be a challenge to find.

If they didn’t occur in such concentrations, the least tern’s well-camouflaged nests could be a challenge for us to find. (Photo courtesy Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton)

On a good day my crew members and I might find about a dozen snowy plover nests, whereas during the peak of least tern nesting we can—and have—easily found over 200 least tern nests in one day! On a particularly busy day this season, we could hardly walk more than 20 feet without discovering a new least tern nest. Calling out the nest count sounded a bit like we were bidding at an auction; sometimes several nests were found almost simultaneously with one crew member exclaiming “I’ve got nest 500!” only to be quickly followed by “501!” and a few seconds later by “502!”

Because least terns nest in large colonies of up to several hundred individuals, their nests are much more obvious, but there is a lower probability of a particular individual’s nest becoming the victim of a predator. Being in a colony also offers the additional protection of having many adults present that can mob predators. Having walked through an active least tern nesting colony, I can personally attest to the protective nature of the adults. They have threatened me with their harsh “zwreep” alarm calls, flown inches from the top of my head while dive-bombing me, and even defecated on me and my data sheets in an attempt to drive me away from their nests!

Monica Stupaczuk is a research associate with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. You can learn more about this project by reading A Day in the Life of a Beach Biologist.


Saving Kauai’s Honeycreepers

Akikiki eggs

To start a captive breeding flock to help save the critically endangered akikiki, we collected two eggs each from a number of  nests.

Since it began in 1993, the San Diego Zoo Global’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program (HEBCP) has worked with over a dozen native bird species found only on the Hawaiian Islands. The conservation status of these birds ranges from non-endangered surrogate species to critically endangered species that are on the brink of extinction.

The past decade has seen a precipitous decline in two species of Hawaii honeycreepers, the akikiki and akeke‘e. These two small species of forest birds are found only in a remote area on the island of Kauai and the wild population has been monitored for years. Due to the declines of both species in the wild, bird experts determined these two species should be raised in captivity as a safeguard against extinction. Based on that decision and with funding from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as a grant from the Mohamed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, our HEBCP team began planning the techniques and protocols to safely and successfully add these two new species to our facilities on both the Big Island and Maui.

Whenever possible, the best scenario for bringing a species into captivity is to collect eggs from nests out in the wild. There are many reasons why this is the preferred method. By collecting eggs, you eliminate the chance of bringing in a disease that an adult bird might have into the captive flock. It can also be very difficult to teach an adult bird from the wild to eat from a food pan and acclimate it to a captive diet. Another reason we didn’t want to start our captive flock by collecting adult birds out of the wild is that there are so few akikiki and akeke‘e left in Kauai’s forests and we didn’t want to negatively affect the wild population. When you collect a wild female’s eggs she almost always builds a new nest and lays a second clutch. Thus, you can build a captive flock without reducing the number of wild chicks produced.

One of the first decisions made by our team was to setup an egg house on Kauai instead of trying to transport eggs from there to our facilities on Maui or the Big Island. Akikiki and akeke‘e eggs are incredibly tiny, weighing between 1.2 and 2.5 grams. As a comparison, two plain M&Ms weigh 1.8 grams! These eggs are so delicate that they could become damaged during transport if they were flown to another island. With generous help from Jesse Fukushima from Kauai Realty, Inc. as well as Bryan and Tanya Tanaka, we rented a house on Kauai and shipped over all the equipment and tools we would need to care for the eggs and chicks we hoped to obtain. This included everything from incubators and brooders for the eggs and chicks to the food items that we would eventually be feeding.

Our next task was to decide what incubation, hatching, and rearing methods to use for these two new-to-us species. We had to think of everything from what temperature we would use to incubate the eggs to what food items we would feed the chicks. Fortunately for us, the akikiki and akeke‘e are insectivores (meaning most of their diet comes from insects) which are very similar to two other honeycreeper species that we have already worked with, the Hawaii creeper and the Hawaii akepa. Thus, with some small adjustments, we adopted successful protocols we had used with the Hawaii creeper and Hawaii akepa to use with our new species.


Out on a limb: Akikiki nest on terminal branches, so accessing the nests requires scaling great heights!

We had the house, we had the supplies, we had the protocols…the only thing left to do was to collect the eggs! Unfortunately, this was much easier said than done. Akikiki and akeke‘e nest in the remote Alakai Swamp on Kauai. There are no roads into this habitat, it can only be reached by a long, arduous seven-hour hike through the rainforest. Yet, getting to the birds’ territory is the easy part. Akikiki and akeke‘e build their nests at the ends of branches, sometimes 40 feet up in the air! The big question was: how would we reach the nests to harvest eggs? The State of Hawaii’s Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project (KFBRP) team identified a technique where a 40-foot ladder is raised to almost vertical and, instead of leaning against something, is then tied off onto anchors behind the ladder. This setup would allow our HEBCP staff to gain access to the nests that were previously too remote to collect from.

On March 26, 2015, after spending the previous day practicing the ladder techniques and transporting the ladder to the nest site, we set the ladder up and, with assistance from the KFBRP team, collected two eggs from an akikiki nest. The eggs were placed in a thermos and lowered from the nest by rope before being transferred into a battery-powered incubator. The ladder was then moved to a second akikiki nest and two more eggs were harvested and placed into the portable incubator, then carried back to camp on foot. A helicopter that was on standby was notified of our successful harvest and began flying to the landing zone near the camp. We carefully brought the eggs to the waiting helicopter and flew out of the swamp. The strenous hike into the location translates into a 20-minute helicopter ride to a landing zone just a few miles from the egg house. At the house, the eggs were weighed and candled. Candling the eggs is a process in which a bright light is shone through each egg to see which ones are fertile and how far along they are in development. With bated breath we candled our first egg. Inside, we saw active blood vessels and an embryo moving around—it was fertile! We candled the other three eggs and discovered the same thing. All four akikiki eggs were fertile and looked to be a few days away from hatching. We carefully put the eggs back into the incubator and let out a sigh of relief. We had successfully collected four fertile eggs from a brand new species of endangered Hawaiian honeycreeper, and if all goes well we should have four chicks in a few days time!

Check back regularly for more blogs to complete the story!

Jeremy Hodges is a senior hospital keeper at the San Diego Zoo and seasonally participates as a research coordinator with the Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program.


California Condor Chick: 30 to 45 Days of Age

A Condor Cam screen capture of the fluffy, growing chick.

This Condor Cam screen capture shows the California condor chick to be developing nicely.

At approximately one month of age, our California condor chick should weigh around 4 pounds (2 kilograms). The parents, Sisquoc and Shatash, may start leaving the chick alone overnight, sleeping near the nest instead of in it. 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, 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, head bobbing, and trying 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 mammals, like rats and rabbits.) Condors can digest just about every part of the animals 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 cast hair pellets as young as three weeks of age. 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 45 days of age, the chick will get its first health exam. We will obtain a blood sample for the lab to make sure it is healthy and send a portion of this sample to a lab in the Genetics Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, located adjacent to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. From this blood sample, the geneticists can determine if the chick is male or female. Also, during the exam, we will weigh the chick—it should weigh between 7.75 to 8.75 pounds (3.5 – 4 kilograms)—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. West Nile Virus is disease that originated in Africa and was accidently introduced to North America by humans. North American wildlife, including condors, usually doesn’t have a natural immune response to West Nile Virus, so we are trying to give the chicks as much of a head start as we can.

This exam will be the first time that the chick will see humans, so it will naturally be disturbing for it. We try to be as quick as we can be (9 to 10 minutes) to minimize the disturbance. Additionally, we will keep the chick covered with a towel to reduce its exposure to humans and to provide it 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, as well. We have to keep in mind that we don’t want the chick to become accustomed to or feel reassured by our presence; 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.

The chick will look very large at this age compared to how big it was at hatch, but remember that it is still less than half of its adult weight. There is much more growth and fun to come!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous blog, Guide to Condor-chick Watching: Ages 1 Week to 1 Month.


Spot On!

Brightly colored mouth nodes help a Gouldian finch chick get spotted by its parents.

Brightly colored mouth nodes help a Gouldian finch chick get spotted by its parents.

It’s baby bird season! A lot of our collection birds are sitting on eggs, feeding tiny chicks, and teaching their young fledglings how to make that final leap and learn to fly. As a senior associate in the Wildlife Disease Labs, I examine a lot of different species of baby birds. Some have really cool adaptations to life as a tiny chick in a dark nest!

Gouldian finches win the prize for the most colorful chick beaks. This species nests in the hollows of trees, keeping their chicks safe in the darkness. Pearlescent white and blue nodes on the each side of the chick’s mouth shimmer in the low light of the nest, creating an easy marker for the parents to spot. Gouldian finch chicks tend not to make any noise; they simply open their mouth, turning their head gently side to side, and the glimmer attracts the parents’ attention. They may be tiny, less than an inch tall at hatch, but it’s easy to spot the Gouldian finch chick spots!


It would be hard for a coua parent to not spot this plea for food!

It would be hard for a coua parent to not spot this plea for food!

The Northern crested coua has white circles on the inside of its mouth that look like targets to help the parent birds find the chick in the nest. These distinctive marks alert the parents that the chick is hungry and begging for food. Other chicks, like the common waxbill and paradise whydah, have similar black swirls and spots on the inside of their mouths. It turns out paradise whydahs will often lay their eggs in a common waxbill nest (free babysitting!), and when the chicks hatch the waxbill parents are unable to tell the difference between waxbill and whydah chicks. Waxbills will feed all of the chicks in their nest, even if the waxbill female hasn’t laid an egg of its own!

What other spots have you spotted around the Zoo or Safari Park recently?

Rachael Keeler is a Senior Research Associate with the Wildlife Disease Labs at the Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous blogs, Let’s Hear It for Honking Swans! and Finding a Cure for Scratchy Throats.


Guide to Condor-chick Watching: Ages 1 Week to 1 Month

The condor chick is knows what it wants (food) and knows how to get it from Shatash!

Condor Cam screenshot: Now that the condor chick is a little bigger, it will be easier to get a glimpse of Shatash (seen here) and Sisquoc feeding it.

At approximately two to three weeks of age, the real fun of condor chick-viewing begins! The chick is getting bigger, weighing between 17 and 42 ounces (500 and 1200 grams), and can often be seen poking its head out from under the parents’ wings. 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—the parents are nearby, often just out of the camera’s view, approximately six to eight feet 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 while feeding now, so you may catch a glimpse of food actually being transferred from the parent to the chick. The chick’s crop—a bulge in the esophagus where food is stored—may be visible when it’s full. Look for a bald patch of skin between the size of a golf ball and a tennis ball. You will also witness a very common behavior called “wing-begging.” This is when 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 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. Both the chick and its 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 were right after hatching.

Some viewers may notice what look like scabs or wounds on its head, neck, and torso, matting its down feathers. No need to worry—what you’re seeing is regurgitated food stuck to the chick’s face or body. Feeding can be quite exciting for the chick and some food doesn’t always end up in its mouth (sound familiar, parents?). 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! Anyone that has seen the big condors eat on exhibit at Condor Ridge at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park or at the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey 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!

At three weeks of age, 2 pounds, 10 ounces to 3 pounds, 4 ounces (1.2-1.5 kilograms), condor chicks can start to thermoregulate, or control their own body temperature. This is when the parents can start leaving the chicks on their 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, the parents may spend time in the nest with the chick, but they may not necessarily sit on the chick.

At this stage, too, 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 through a process called “molting,” similar to when mammals shed their hair or 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 will be 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 weighs around 3 pounds, 15 ounces (1.8 kilograms). The parents may start leaving the chick alone overnight, sleeping near the nest. If the weather is still cool or it is raining, the parents may continue to brood overnight until the weather improves. 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. Read his previous post, A New Condor Chick on Condor Cam.