Moving Day for Condor Su’nan

Su'nan has left the nest.

Su’nan has left the nest.

A lot has happened this month at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s condor breeding facility. This is the time of the year when we are preparing for the next breeding season: cleaning nests, conducting routine health exams, and providing maintenance to flight pens that were previously off-limits to keepers because of the presence of our young chicks slated for release to the wild. Also, this year we are pleased to report that we are setting up three new breeding pairs here at the Safari Park. But the most exciting piece of news is that our youngest chick and star of this year’s Condor Cam, Su’nan, has finally fledged!

Su’nan left the nest and was able to fly up to the high perches in her pen on October 17 at the age of 172 days. The youngest condor to fledge at the Park was 123 days old, which makes Su’nan a bit of a late bloomer, but that is OK. Her feathers are in beautiful shape, and she has put on a decent amount of weight, measuring in at a petite 16 pounds (7.3 kilograms). When she flew up to the perch, after sunning herself on a low stump, proud papa Towich perched calmly next to her as she preened. It was a view well worth the wait!

Here's a sneak preview of the remote socialization pen where Su'nan now lives.

Here’s a sneak preview of the remote socialization pen where Su’nan now lives.

A few days later, on October 23, it was time to move Su’nan out of her parents’ pen and into our remote socialization pen approximately one mile from the main part of the Safari Park. There, she will be isolated from any human activity and socialized with other fledglings her age. 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 turn aggressive to the chick if they try to nest again.

Before her move, we affixed a wing tag to Su’nan’s right wing for identification purposes. She is now wearing wing tag Blue 49. She is sharing this large pen with eight other condors:

Cachuma (ca-CHOO-ma): Female, 31 years old, wearing no wing tags
Xananan (ha-NA-nan): Female, 10 years old, wearing tag Blue 21 (left wing)
Wesa (WAY-sah): Female, 1½ years old, wearing tag Yellow 76 (right wing)
Pshan (puh-SHAWN): Male, 1½ years old, wearing tag Yellow 91 (right wing)
Ostus (OH-stuss): Male, 1½ years old, wearing tag Blue 2 (right wing)
Napay (na-PIE): Male, 7 months old, wearing tag White 24 (right wing)
Qawaq (ka-WAWK): Female, 7 months old, wearing tag Red 26 (right wing)
Issuy (ee-SOO-ee): Female, 6 months old, wearing tag Yellow 43 (right wing)

California condors that are expected to be released to the wild are called release candidates. We raise all of our condor chicks as if they are release candidates until we hear otherwise from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which oversees the California Condor Recovery Program. We have yet to hear if and/or where any of this year’s fledglings will be released. Release candidates are isolated from humans. We offer their food through a chute in the wall. The pools are drained and rinsed from the outside of the pen. We don’t pick up any of their old food. The only time the birds see us is during a medical procedure: affixing wingtags, pre-shipment examinations, or West Nile Virus inoculations. These generally are not enjoyable experiences for the young condors, and that is what we want them to learn from us before they are shipped to the wild. We don’t want them to associate humans with anything beneficial. We are hoping to foster behaviors that wild condors would have: avoiding human activity and hazardous, artificial situations. Survival rates for condors that become accustomed to humans and human activity are very low.

Two of Su’nan’s new penmates have a very important role. Cachuma and Xananan, the adults, are acting as the young birds’ new mentors. The mentor’s job is to facilitate the socialization of the fledglings. Condors are very social and, like us, need to learn the rules of how to interact in a group. The parent condors started this process when the chicks hatched and continued it as the youngsters eventually fledged. Now that they are no longer living with their parents, Cachuma and Xananan will further the fledglings’ education. They will be the dominant birds in the pen, often displacing the fledglings from perches or roost sites or pushing them from the food until they have eaten first. The dominant birds at a site are usually the biggest ones and often the most experienced. The young condors need to learn how to interact with these dominant and pushy birds to be successful in the wild.

The socialization pen is very large with lots of space to fly around and exercise wings. There are several large oak snags on which to perch or roost. Also, there are two pools from which to drink or bathe. There are several ground-level perches and boulders to hop around on as well. It is interesting to see the social development of each bird. They can choose to perch next to whichever bird they wish, so they really get to know each other well. We have learned that young condors that aren’t well-socialized tend not to be successful once they are released to the wild.

So far, Su’nan is taking a very subordinate role in the group, as expected. As she gets more experience, she will gain confidence and assert herself as a competent member of her group. She flies very well in the pen and interacts appropriately with the older birds. Her parents, Towich and Sulu, have done a great job preparing her for the big, wide world!

This is the first year that the Condor Cam is able to broadcast our socialization pen. We are very excited to provide this unique view to all of our dedicated viewers. We plan on starting this camera on Monday, November 3. Enjoy! Feel free to post any comments or questions, and we’ll try to get them answered as soon as we can!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, To Fledge or Not to Fledge.

30 Responses to Moving Day for Condor Su’nan

  1. Hi Ron,
    Thanks for the update on Sunan and the explanation of what comes next. Looking forward to the new cam.
    I’d still like an update on Saticoy and Cuayamacha.
    Thanks to you and your staff for wonderful work with these remarkable creatures.

    Monitor’s note: We have just received updates from the field crew regarding Saticoy and Cuyamaca. Ron hopes to write a blog about them soon. We are proud of them!

  2. Another interesting cam to add to the list for watching! Thank you for allowing us to watch the development of our young condors. I find it quite entertaining as well as educational.


    • Pshan was expected to stay back in the zoo breeding population, but after further analysis by the Recovery Program geneticists and our Genetics staff at the Institute for Conservation Research, it appears as if he would be more appropriate as a release candidate. We haven’t heard where or when he would be released yet, but he will stay in our socialization pen with all of the other release candidates until that time.

  4. congrats on Su’nan’s fledging and move. looking forward to the new cam for the group’s socialization period.

  5. Su’nan has left the building. yay.

  6. Hi Ron, I had a question regarding Su’nan having been moved to her new area … will either she or her parents go through a period of “sadness” seeing as how they are no longer together? Do the parents perhaps realize (in their own way) that it was time for her to move on and they will now start preparing for another breeding season? In your past experience, have you noticed that the young bird or the parents seemed “depressed” (well, as depressed as a bird can get)? Thanks for the wonderful update on our girl !

    • Being moved to the new pen is a huge period of adjustment. There is a certain level of anxiety to contend with, just as there is when we move into a new house. But just like us, the condors adapt just fine. Su’nan has plenty to keep her occupied: adjusting to a new feeding area, meeting her new pen-mates, exploring her new surroundings. All of this would happen in the wild as well; it’s all part of growing up! If she was acting depressed, we would notice her not eating or showing interest in her surroundings. Although she is still nervous and very subordinate in the group, she is showing excellent behaviors for her progress.

      Regarding the parents, Towich and Sulu, they, of course, were not pleased with the removal of their chick, but it was necessary. Towich had already been starting to display to Sulu, marking the early stages of the next breeding season. The presence of the chick can confound breeding efforts. Sometimes the parents may not breed until the chick is gone; other times, the parents may show aggression and chase the fledged chick away. In our breeding pens, the chick has nowhere else to go, possibly resulting in the parents attacking the older chick, who may now be in the way. Removing the chick at this age is the best and safest option for everyone. They have proven to be very rugged and adaptable birds!

  7. I just saw both Towich and Sulu looking into the next box as if they were searching for something. They are probably looking for Su’nan. Or perhaps they are considering what to do with her “room” now that she has fledged!

  8. Great to hear Su’nan is on her way to a new life. Saw Mom and Dad looking into the nest this afternoon, hope they’re not too sad that she is not with them anymore. Fly free pretty Su’nan.

  9. So glad to hear Su’nan has finally fledged and moved to the socialization pen. Can’t wait to see her and the others interacting/socializing as a California Condor in the socialization pen. Thanks for sharing. :)

  10. I’m curious. How is the chick removed from the pen? Do the parents see what is happening? Thanks so much!

    • We have to catch the condors in big nets. We cannot use a tranquilizer dart, like you can with a mammal; birds have hollow bones and air sacs under the skin. It’s much easier to handle the chicks for their nest exams when they’re younger and not flying around. When they have fledged and are more mobile, we have to catch them out in the flight pen where the parents can see everything. The birds don’t necessarily like to be handled, so we do it only when we have to. Once we caught Su’nan in the net and removed her from the flight pen, we attached her new wing tag out of the parents’ view. Then we transported her in a large animal kennel about a mile into the hills behind the Safari Park where our remote and quiet socialization pen is located. Then she was released into a flight pen larger than her parents’ pen to be socialized with our other 2014 chicks and their mentors. We know that this can be a scary and traumatic time for chicks and parents, but we take every precaution to keep all involved safe and comfortable.

      • Thank you, Ron. I appreciate you addressing my question. I have every confidence that all is done in as humane and safe manner as possible.

  11. Looking forward to Nov. 3rd. This has been a great learning experience…thanks Ron….

  12. Thanks Ron for the update and also for addressing the possible emotional responses from parents and chick. Altho I too get a bit sad when I see the zoo has to remove chicks and other endangered young from their parents earlier than they might leave in the wild, I consider the sacrifice of the birds or animal for the good of the future generations of bird or animal. And yes, they do adjust and make their way into adulthood as they would in the wild and we humans have to do when we leave our parents. To me, having the parents be aggressive with their chick would be much more difficult for all involved, so I appreciate you taking steps to avoid that. I just wish I wouldn’t get so darn attached to all the babies, I can’t wait to see Su’nan in the flight pen Monday! Thank you for that.
    P.S. Upon further thought, I think my attachment is worth it to me, the joy I get from seeing Su’Nan grow up is far more than my temporary sadness of seeing her leave her parents, because my joy will return when she grows and fulfills her adulthood.

  13. Hi
    I am patiently waiting the new outdoor cam for Su’nan, hope we will see it soon. Please let me know if I need to go somewhere else to view it

    Thanks again everyone

    Monitor’s note: You won’t need to go to a different page, Viv. The camera will just change its view to the socialization pen.

  14. I saw both parents looking around in the nest box. It brought a lump to my throat to see them even though I realise it is necessary. I am looking forward to seeing the socialization pen soon.

  15. Hi Ron,
    Quick question … I am looking at the cam right now and I see who I think is the mama bird sitting on the bottom of the outside of the nest box .. she is resting on her tarsal joints and has been for some time … is this normal for an adult? I saw Su’nan do that as a baby but have not witnessed it in an adult before. Thank you for your continued updates .. I look forward to reading about all of the condors.

    • Yes, this is a normal resting position for birds of any age. We have seen egrets, cranes, vultures, ostriches, and many other birds take a rest in this way.

  16. Looking at Towich and Sulu just hanging around the empty nest box is making me anthropomorphize!

    “The wretched Parents all that night
    Went shouting far and wide;
    But there was neither sound nor sight
    To serve them for a guide.” (from Lucy Grey by Wordsworth)

    Sorry, Ron!

  17. Leave it to me to be SO INTO the rearing of precious Su’nan…that me and many others…just find I sad to see Momma and Poppa below the empty perch…just looking kind of lost! Forgive us…keepers…for we know not how much we LOVE!
    I just wish there were some way they could see or hear their baby flying free in her new surroundings…..having a soft heart sure stinks sometime! But…I know this is the way it has to be done…so I understand. Make more babies….Momma and Poppa..that will help! :)

  18. Love the new camera in the socialization pen! Thanks so much.

  19. So nice to see the socialization pen! Thanks, Ron and crew.

  20. was Su’nan feeding herself mostly before she moved to the socialization pen? is there an order of feeding in the pen now? does everyone get fed at once and are the condors pretty polite about it currently?
    thanks also for putting up the cam in the socialization pen.

  21. The video is not as good as in the nest pen. It doesn’t seem to be a streaming video and looks like pictures taken when something moves. Is this true or is it just my web browser?

    Monitor’s note: It is a live video stream, just like the nest box, but the camera will remain fixed in one location unless moved by a member of the Condor Team.

  22. It is still very jerky. There is about a 5 second time lapse between images!

    Monitor’s note: You’re right, and our technicians are working to resolve the problem.

  23. Wow…what beauty that surrounds them in their socialization pen. And I thought Virginia had beautiful mountains! Out of curiousity..what mountains are these? Thank you keepers…for the wonderful view! Su’nans rolling with the big guys now! :)

    Monitor’s note: The San Diego Zoo Safari Park is in the San Pasqual Valley, which has lots of peaks, ridges, and canyons. The birds do have a nice view!

  24. Hi Everyone
    I have been watching the new cam daily hoping to catch Su’nan, not sure I have yet. I see a lot of Blue 2, Ostus but can’t seem to locate our little one. Has anyone spotted her yet, if so how is she looking?

  25. Oh my just took 3 pics of our little one she is sitting so pretty on the nearest tree, so glad I got to see her today