Bad News, Good News, GREAT News!

Out of difficulties grow miracles.” – Jean De La Bruyere
If you have been watching the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Condor Cam, it is an understatement to say that things have not been going according to plan. First, the webcam for the condor nest had some technical difficulties (as did the Elephant Cam!). Additionally, as we were waiting for our fifth California condor egg to hatch live on CondorCam, we noticed that something wasn’t quite right with the egg, despite the excellent and attentive care provided by parents Sisquoc and Shatash.

The egg was expected to hatch early on March 31, but on April 1, the egg still had not hatched – over 96 hours after it had originally pipped, or started to hatch. Usually, condors hatch within 72 hours or so.

We were able to safely retrieve the egg from the nest, but it was immediately obvious that this egg needed assistance. The embryo had rotated halfway around the egg’s circumference, which was good. In order to hatch from the egg, the embryo spins itself around inside the egg, breaking shell as it moves; this is called “rotation.” It’s a very tiring process, but necessary in order for the chick to emerge from the egg. Unfortunately, the embryo was coated in a yellow, sticky, foul-smelling fluid that was causing the sand substrate in the nest to adhere to the embryo and shell. Sisquoc and Shatash were properly doing their job of clearing broken shell out of the way as the embryo rotated, but cleaning the caked sand was proving to be very difficult for them.

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Keepers used a gentle hand, extreme skill, and a patience borne of passion to clean the sand out and help the chick out of the egg.

To keep Sisquoc and Shatash attentive to their nest, a fake egg (called a “dummy egg”) was placed in the nest, as we hurried the real egg to our Hatching Facility. The dummy egg’s presence helps keep our options open in case we are able to return their egg to them, or possibly give them another egg to foster-rear in the future if we cannot. At the Hatching Facility, it was determined that the embryo’s yolk sac was somehow ruptured inside the shell during the hatching process, hence the yellow fluid. In a normal hatch, the yolk sac is absorbed by the embryo through its umbilicus, and then the abdomen is sealed off before hatch. Our keeper staff and veterinarian performed an emergency breakout. Luckily, the chick’s seal was entirely closed and in decent condition!

This process left the newly-hatched chick very tired. Also, we were concerned about the possibility of spilled yolk fluid in the chick’s abdomen, which could breed bacteria causing a nasty infection. Our veterinary staff prescribed a course of antibiotics for the chick. Due to the guarded prognosis, it was decided to rear this chick with a puppet.

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Success! Not coincidentally, the chick has been named Ackaw, a Chumash word that means “to succeed”.

We stayed around the clock monitoring, feeding, and medicating the chick. It was surprisingly robust even just 12 hours after hatch, but the looming concern of a potential infection kept us vigilant. With each day, the chick became stronger and more active. Additionally, Sisquoc and Shatash were still faithfully incubating their dummy egg.

Taking into consideration the chick’s encouraging improvement, as well as Sisquoc and Shatash’s exemplary behavior, our management team and veterinary staff approved a plan to replace the chick back in the nest with its parents. Our main concern was how Sisquoc and Shatash were going to react to a six-day-old, active chick in their nest, instead of a sleepy neonate.

On April 6, while Sisquoc and Shatash were eating in the flight pen, we shifted Sisquoc into a holding pen and quietly snuck into the nest and replaced the dummy egg with their chick. We also left portions of an eggshell and wet the chick’s downy feathers with water to give the appearance of a newly-hatched bird. A few minutes later, Shatash came back into the nest and saw the chick. She cautiously approached it, and the chick started begging to be fed. She inspected it by nibbling at it and moved it around with her beak. She nestled down onto it and began to brood it (or keep it warm)! Thirty minutes later, after some persistent begging from the chick, Shatash fed her chick for the first time.

After Shatash had some positive time alone with the chick, we released Sisquoc from his shift pen. He calmly checked on the nest, and then perched out in the pen. After about an hour, he entered the nest and saw the broken shell. Shatash got up off of their chick, and Sisquoc saw it. He approached calmly and inspected it as Shatash had. He then began to brood it as well. The reunion was complete!

We named the chick “Ackaw” (pronounced ACK-ah). It is a Chumash word that means “to succeed.”

We are very proud to be able to provide Condor Cam for you once again. Thank you for being so patient and understanding during this entire process. All of the questions, comments, and concerns are very much appreciated. It lets us know that we are not alone in our love for these awesome birds! Check Condor Cam frequently to follow the family’s progress and for blog updates explaining the chick’s growth and development.

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous blog, The Egg Has Pipped!

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