Condor Chick Fostering: Week 1

Towich dutifully sits tight.

Towich dutifully sits tight.

Our newest California condor chick hatched on April 29, 2014, weighing around 6 ounces or 180 grams (see post Fostering Condor Chicks). The hatching process can be grueling, so afterward, the chick usually rests a lot and is brooded—or sat on—by the parents. We often call this sitting tight. The parents are providing protection and warmth, especially while the newly hatched chick is drying off. With the chick being weak and wobbly, it often is hard to feed, but that is okay. The chick is getting nutrients from the yolk sac that it absorbed into its belly just before hatching.

After about a day, the chick can hold its head steady, and the parents then start providing food. They eat food that we offer out in the flight pen and then bring it to the chick in their crop (a bulge in their esophagus where they can store up to 3 pounds of food). The food is regurgitated for the chick, providing a warm and nutritious meal. Mmmmmmm! The diet we provide varies, depending on the day, but it can include rabbits, rats, trout, beef spleen, and ground meat. While the chick is very young, it is often difficult to witness a feeding on Condor Cam, since the parents are standing directly above the chick, blocking the camera’s view. If you see the parents slightly bobbing their heads while standing over the chick, feeding is occurring. Feeding sessions are fairly short for small chicks, since their crops are only about the size of a lima bean.

Condor Cam zoomed in on the doting father this morning.

Condor Cam zoomed in on the doting father this morning.

Both the male and female California condor provide care for the chick. This drive is very strong, and it’s not uncommon to see the parents vying for time with the chick, especially immediately after hatching. This happens in the form of leaning into each other, pushing one’s way onto the chick; scooping the chick from one parent to the other; or nipping at neck skin or tugging at feathers to get the other parent to move. Usually, one parent acts more dominantly and controls the interactions a little more than the other parent. This time, father Towich took this dominant role. Other years, we’ve seen Sulu take this role. We interpret this periodic shift in dominance, and the other bird’s acceptance of this shift, as a very good trait in a condor pair. As time passes after hatch, they settle into a routine, and the nest exchanges become much calmer.

Sometimes Condor Cam viewers are concerned about the number of times that the chick gets stepped on by the parents. In many species, ranging from hummingbirds to elephants, babies get slightly squished by the parents. Usually, it’s just a minor misstep, and the baby lets the parent know with a brief vocalization. Condors are no different or no more fragile. They are very hearty little chicks!

As young as 4 days of age, we have seen chicks sifting through the sand in the nest, picking up items on their own. We’ve even seen chicks swallowing small pieces of their eggshell for dietary calcium.

At the end of the condor chick’s first week of life, it weighs around 10.5 ounces (300 grams). It is getting much stronger but is not venturing around the nest very much yet. Coordination is improving, and we can witness social interactions with the parents: nibbling, preening, and nuzzling. Every once in a while, you may see the chick quivering, almost like it has the hiccups. It is actually vocalizing. Condors don’t have a true voice box or syrinx like other birds, but they can make crude, primitive vocalizations. Adults may grunt, wheeze, or hiss. Chicks can make a high-pitched, scraping squawk, usually when begging or when out from under the parents for too long.

The next few weeks of development are very exciting, not just for the condor family but for any of us watching on the Condor Cam. Stay tuned!

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

14 Responses to Condor Chick Fostering: Week 1

  1. Thanks for the thorough and informative post.
    I can see the chickie moving its head about in the corner. It has very light colored down on its body.
    Oops, now the foster parent (Towich 35) is sitting on the chick. Towich is big.

  2. Thank you Ron for the update it’s always very interesting. And the chick is doing fine great news

  3. Ron: Thank you for the well written and informative update. Thank you also for the privilege of viewing the California condors on the live webcam. I had my first view of the condor chick this morning and he/she looks strong and healthy. Great job!

  4. Ron,

    Thanks so much for taking time from your busy schedule to write these educational and informative essays for us. It is greatly appreciated.


  5. Many thanks Ron for all the information and updates, I’m fascinated by these majestic birds. Right now the chick is nestled on top of Towich’s wing and looks very much like a regal prince with Towich as an adoring father. Love it!

  6. 8:50am, finally got to see Sulu feed the chick. Seems like a pretty uncomfortable way to eat for both mom and chick, but of course if that was the only way I had to eat I’d learn to love it too! Afterwards the chick settled under mom’s wing, I could still see part of the chick, it seemed very snuggly, warm and comfy. Pretty interesting stuff!

  7. 10:07 am – The chick looks really big! Or perhaps the camera has zoomed in. Do you weigh it periodically or is it pretty much hands off for now?

    Monitor’s note: It’s hands-off, unless a problem is noted.

  8. Just watched what seemed to be the condor equivalent of a bath; Towich began very slowly and gently nipping at the chick’s fur for a long time, waking the chick. After awhile the bath seemed rather fast and furious with a few nips pulling too hard on the fur and the chick protesting and even biting Towich’s face. Come on, what young child likes a bath? After covering the whole chick’s body ( was the chick really THAT dirty? ) I must admit, the chick did indeed look fluffier!

  9. Wow baby very mobile and lots of wing flapping! Seems very healthy!

  10. is it ok for the chick in this hot weather? I guess if they live in Baja CA and in AZ then they must be used to it. but does the nest area have any fan? we’re having a heat wave in LA so I imagine San Diego is similar.

    Ron responds: When it comes to the weather, California condors are very adaptable. Their natural range is the western US. They live comfortably in chaparral-covered valleys, mountain ranges, deserts, and the coast. They don’t migrate, so they have natural ways of dealing with hot summer temperatures, rainstorms, and winter snow. In hot weather, such as this current heat spell we are experiencing, the most obvious coping mechanism we witness is panting. Condors pant to keep cool, just like your pet dog. The adults also cool off by bathing in the pools we offer or by a process called urohydrosis. This is when a condor excretes uric acid onto its bare legs. As the liquid evaporates, it keeps the legs cool, thus cooling off the rest of the body. We use evaporative cooling, too, but we call it sweating. The chicks sprawl out on the floor of their nest and pant. Mom and dad bring food and water to the chick throughout the day. There is no fan in the nest, but it is very shady. Mom and dad are usually just out of the camera’s view, keeping cool in the shade as well.

  11. Just witnessed an interesting interaction between Sulu and Towich. Sulu had been brooding the chick. Towich entered the nest and started pushing at Sulu. They pushed and nipped at each other for several minutes while the chick was pushed a bit by both of them. Looked like Sulu trying to keep it under her wing and Towich trying to get it away from her. Finally Sulu left. For a couple of minutes Towich just sat in the nest. Finally he went over and started to brood the chick. I had read about such arguments over chick care, but this is the first time I’ve seen it. Towich is usually the one I see brooding. Thank you for the opportunity to watch these great birds raising chicks.

  12. It looks like the chick is beginning to walk on upright feet/toes instead of tarsals or ankles. This chick collects more items and makes more of a nest for itself than Saticoy or Cuyamaca did. It seems active and probably Condor smart. I appreciate this opportunity to share in the hatching and raising of the Condor chicks. Thank you.