It’s the end of the year and time for a new cohort of California condors to begin the mentoring process at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park. Four youngsters, fresh out of their nest boxes, have been selected to prepare for eventual release to the wilds of Baja California, Mexico. They are currently sharing a small enclosure with a mentor bird while the group adjusts to communal living, and shortly the group will be given access to a large flight pen where they will live for the next eight months. During this time, researchers from the Zoo’s Applied Animal Ecology Division will be documenting their behavior as a continuation of a study we began a few years back. The goal of our research is to determine any social or temperamental factors that might help us to predict which individual birds are going to be successful when released to their native habitat.
In heading up to the observation blind the other day, I knew it would be a quiet day for the birds. It was raining and windy outside, and in such conditions the birds typically do little but hunker down and wait out the storm. The most difficult part of observation that day involved determining if a bird was sitting quietly or was, in fact, asleep!
Condors are carrion feeders and have some adaptations to this lifestyle that help them succeed. They have bald heads and necks, a feature that deprives them of the cute and fluffy appearance of some other birds. But when feeding at a carcass, the condor does not need to worry about the bacteria and other unsavory microbes growing on their food source. These harmful critters don’t become trapped by plumage and fester on the bird; rather, the sun or wind can dry out the microbes quickly on the bird’s bald skin.
On days like this, however, those featherless features can be a bit of a hindrance. Without plumage to cover the skin, the birds are at risk of heat loss to the environment on a cold day. In order to protect themselves from dropping temperatures, the condors sit quietly with their necks shortened as much as possible and their heads held low. They fluff up the fringe of feathers at the base of their neck as a type of scarf. In this posture they ride out the storm in good fashion.
This is the first foul weather our little fledges, hatched earlier this year, have ever encountered. They had varying reactions to it: one young bird looked around with each wind gust, while another slept through the whole ordeal. Not to worry: in San Diego we are bound to have another warm day soon enough, and the condors will once again be sunning themselves contentedly with the other members of their cohort.
Suzanne Hall is a senior research techinican for the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous condor blog, Condors: Challenges with a New Cohort.
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