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.