Luhui’s Next Step

Our Condor Cam star, Luhui (pronounced “loo-HOO-ee”) has been very busy! He was able to jump up onto his nest barrier on August 29 (at 105 days old); he walked down the pole ladder to the ground and explored the flight pen on September 29 (at 132 days old); and he fledged on October 13 (at 150 days old).

A father/son moment in the yard outside the nest box: Siwon is on the left, Luhui’s on the right.

Fledging is the process in which a young bird leaves the nest. We consider a California condor chick to be fledged when they can fly to the higher perches in the pen—approximately 10 feet off the ground. When condor chicks fledge, they tend to be around 140 or 150 days old; Luhui continues to develop right on schedule.

October can be a busy month at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Condor Breeding Facility. This is the time of the year when we start to prepare for the next breeding season: clean nests, conduct routine health exams, and provide maintenance to flight pens that were previously off-limits to keepers because of the presence of young chicks slated for release to the wild. But before we can start anything, we need to move the recently-fledged chicks to their new home—our socialization pen.

A glimpse of one corner of the socialization pen—that’s Luhui on the far left perch.

Our remote socialization pen is approximately one mile from the main part of the Safari Park. On October 15, we moved Luhui there to be isolated from any human activity and socialize with other fledglings his 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 the move, we affixed a wing tag to Luhui’s right wing for identification purposes. He is now wearing wing tag Yellow 94.

This is the tag to watch for on the Condor Cam view of the socialization habitat.

He is sharing this large pen with nine other condors:

  • Ojja (OH-jah): Female, 17 years old, wearing no wing tags.
  • Amiyic (ah-mee-YEES): Male, 8 months old, wearing tag Red 56 (right wing).
  • Huvaaya (hoo-VYE-yah): Male, 8 months old, wearing tag Blue 57 (right wing).
  • Xanan (HAH-nahn): Female, 7 months old, wearing tag Yellow 61 (right wing).
  • Shuullaw (SHOO-lao): Female, 7 months old, wearing tag White 62 (right wing).
  • Ahash (AH-hawsh): Female, 7 months old, wearing tag White 66 (left wing).
  • Qupe (KOO-pay): Male, 7 months old, wearing tag Yellow 68 (left wing).
  • Kawkikat (KAW-kee-kat): Male, 6 months old, wearing tag Red 86 (left wing).
  • Eleyep (ELL-eh-yep): Male, 5 months old, wearing tag Blue 95 (left 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, who oversees the California Condor Recovery Program. 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 wing-tags, 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.

Adult California condors have red heads. That’s mentor bird Ojja with Luhui in the socialization habitat.

One bird in Luhui’s new habitat has a very important role. Ojja, the adult, is acting as the young birds’ new “mentor.” 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, the chicks’ “education” will be furthered by Ojja. She will be the dominant bird in the space, often displacing the fledglings from perches or roost sites or pushing them from the food until she has 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 in order 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 branches 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.

Luhui has lift-off!

So far, Luhui is integrating well into the group. He flies very well in the pen and interacts appropriately with his new “feathered friends”. His parents, Siwon and Sola, have done a great job preparing him for the big, wide world. As time passes, we should see the whole group settling in, perching, and feeding together. Feel free to post any comments or questions, and we’ll try to get them answered as soon as we can. We hope you enjoy continuine to watch Luhui on Condor Cam as he spreads his wings and soars through this next phase of life!

Ron Webb is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous blog, Luhui’s Big Reveal.