I t’s like Christmas morning for condor conservationists who got to see their hard work rewarded this spring with the “fledging” (first flight) of four adorable condor nestlings into the southern California flock.

The California Condor Nest Guarding Program was founded in 2007 by the Santa Barbara Zoo and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and has since helped increase the success of condors nesting in the wild at the Sespe California Condor Sanctuary rom as low as 6.5% to over 61%!

Let’s learn more about the journey of a chick from the nest to adulthood. While a chick’s first major flight is a monumental achievement, the post-fledge period involves much physical and social development – and discovery!

Following that first extended flight from the nest, a fledgling takes progressively longer flights in and around the canyon where it hatched. During this time, it continues to rely exclusively on its parents for food. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any threats to its survival.

Younger birds that don’t follow the flock rules risk being chased, bitten, or even struck by a wing or foot by older birds!

Threats to young fledglings range from aerial predators such as golden eagles, to terrestrial predators such as mountain lions and coyotes. Young condors are more vulnerable than adults because they are less wary of the dangers around them. This is why conservation efforts are so important to the health of the threatened condor population.

As a fledgling develops its strength and flight skills, it leaves its home territory with its parents and begins to assimilate into the local flock at foraging events. Condors follow a dominance hierarchy, and the least dominant birds, like fledglings, generally have to learn to “wait their turn” for food and other resources.

Researchers think that condors learn many of the social ‘rules’ from their parents and from the rest of the flock. Younger birds that don’t follow the flock rules risk being chased, bitten, or even struck by a wing or foot by older birds! They also get the least desirable perches, like those lower to the ground. These less dominant birds often can be recognized by feathers marked with the whitish marks (caused by uric acid excreted by condors) of dominant condors who roosted above them.

Condors live up to 60 years, so they have plenty of time to learn the ropes before they become physically mature and able to reproduce at approximately age five. You can observe the dominance hierarchy in the Zoo’s flock for yourself at Condor Country.

Photos: Top: NPS Photo by Estelle Sandhaus, Santa Barbara Zoo; (L-R)USFWS Photo by Devon Lang, Santa Barbara Zoo; USFWS Photo by Devon Lang, Santa Barbara Zoo; NPS Photo by Estelle Sandhaus, Santa Barbara Zoo, Rich Block

Estelle Sandhaus

About Estelle Sandhaus

Estelle Sandhaus, PhD, is Director of Conservation and Research at the Santa Barbara Zoo.

500 Ninos Drive, Santa Barbara, CA 93103