Clutches, Cohorts, and Condors

Posted at 12:17 pm December 11, 2006 by Suzanne Hall

 Condor chick fed by puppetOur California condor behavior study aims to follow a cohort of young captive birds to assess their temperament and deduce any clues that might help us predict their likelihood of success in the wild (see Suzanne’s previous blog, Comments on Condors). There are four fledglings in the cohort, all of which were hatched in March or April of this year. These birds are all puppet-reared, which means they were removed as eggs from their parental nest.

Egg removal is a method by which California condor population managers are able to increase the number of condors born annually. The adult condor pair typically lays one large egg in a nest, and both adults will contribute to the rearing of the chick for about 18 months. In managed care, however, the population can get an extra boost if the females are encouraged to lay more than one egg per season. By removing her first egg, she often will double-clutch: she’ll breed again, and lay a second egg about 60 days after the first. The second egg can then be left for its parents to foster, but the first egg must be hand reared.

Hand-reared condors at the Wild Animal Park are fed and nurtured via a puppet that resembles an adult condor (as shown in photo above). Human sounds and smells are minimized as much as possible to retain the appearance of an authentic condor nesting environment. This is done primarily to ensure that the birds grow up with appropriate condor responses to their world and are not imprinted on or are fearless of humans. This will serve them better when they are released to the wild.

The young birds we are currently observing fledged from their artificial nests in October and November and were released into a pen with an adult mentor bird, whose job it is to ensure the youngsters learn proper condor etiquette in a group of real, live birds. Normally, fledges of this age would still be with their parents, so the opportunity to mix with others of their kind in close quarters allows for the expression of many of the social behaviors they would naturally exhibit. The young birds have been observed grooming and playing with each other, and even snuggle with one another on occasion.

The pen where the fledgling cohort resides is in an off-exhibit area of the Park, far removed from the hub of daily activity. The road I use to access the birds ends in a parking area about 150 meters from the facility entrance; this is to reduce the sounds of automobiles in close proximity to the birds. There is a fence running along the walkway to the facility that precludes any visual access to the birds from where I enter; again, this prevents the birds from seeing me up close. When I observe, I am in an enclosed blind with tinted windows so that the birds do not see or hear me. I listen to them via microphones installed in their pen before their release from the nests. In this way, we maintain the illusion for the birds that they are isolated from people.

In my next blog on the subject I will tell you a bit about the four fledges and what kinds of behavior we have seen with them since their release to the outdoor pen they now call home.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research laboratory technician for Giant Panda Conservation Unit, Applied Animal Ecology Division/CRES.

Here’s more information about the California Condor Recovery Program.

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4 Responses to “Clutches, Cohorts, and Condors”

  1. Shirley Sykes says:

    Thaks so much for the information, Suzanne, and for the delightful picture of the downy chick being ” condor” -fed. I am really looking forward to reading about the various behaviors you have observed.

  2. Margaret says:

    Thanks Suzanne for a fascinating account of condor ” raising.” It is amazing what you all can do toward helping endangered species be conserved and reintroduced into the wild. Zoological science has come a long way since I last visited the SDZ and WAP in 1987. I must get back again soon to see all my ” friends” I enjoy reading about and seeing in the great pictures shared with us.

    Thanks for the wonderful job you do with these defenseless animals.

  3. Pamela G says:

    As Margaret says, we (humans) have come a long way in discovering what is really needed by the animals with which we share the earth. The way you are raising the condor chicks and the lengths to which you go to ensure they will avoid people must be hard-won knowledge.

    I remember an old horse trainer telling me, ” No matter how careful you are, how much you think you know, you will, in one way or another, ruin the first dozen horses you work with.” How much more dire the situation must be when you are working with wild creatures on the edge of extinction! We owe all of you in CRES a huge debt for the work you do. Many, many thanks!

  4. Margaret says:

    How are the cohort coming with their surrogate mother (puppet)?

    Very fascinating thinking of how they react to feeding by a puppet.