Fans of the California Condor Recovery Program may be familiar with Condor #321. She was the condor who, in April 2007, flew north from her release site in the Sierra de San Pedro Martir National Park, in Baja California, Mexico, across the international border into California. This marked the first time that a California condor had been seen flying free in San Diego County since 1910! She crossed at the Jacumba Mountains and arrived near Lake Cuyamaca. She stayed for a very short while before returning south to join the rest of the free-flying condor flock in Mexico.
Condor #321 hatched at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park in 2004. So, you can understand why we here at the Park were so excited to hear of her historic journey! She was released into Mexico in the summer of 2006 and socialized well with the older birds.
Unfortunately, disaster struck in November 2007 when 11 of the condors in Mexico were shown to have elevated levels of lead in their blood. Condor #321 was among those birds suffering from lead poisoning. The condors, which are social feeders, ate an animal that had been shot with lead bullets. Bullets made from lead splinter into hundreds of tiny pieces once they hit their target, thus providing many dangerous opportunities for a condor to consume lead pieces in their food. Of those 11 birds, no one was showing any permanent effects of the lead… yet. The field biologists in Mexico and at the San Diego Zoo’s Center for Conservation & Research for Endangered Species (CRES) mobilized quickly to get the proper permits to bring the condors to the Wild Animal Park to begin chelation treatment to remove the lead from their blood. One bird didn’t survive the treatment. Another was treated, but stayed at the Park because of behavioral reasons (this bird is Nikoy, see his blog from 27 June, 2008). The other 9 birds survived and were awaiting their international permits to be shipped back to Mexico.
While in a holding pen at the Wild Animal Park, Condor #321 was attacked by some of the older birds with which she was housed. She survived the attack, but was wounded badly. One of her wings was chewed on and her tail was severely damaged. Her uropygial gland – also called the preen gland – was torn out. The uropygial gland, located where the tail meets the body, secretes oils that the bird uses for feather maintenance during preening. Also, 321’s pygostyle, the fleshy part of the tail from where the tail feathers grow, was missing significant portions. All of her tail feathers were missing and our veterinarians were concerned that she may not be able to grow tail feathers again, thus affecting her ability to fly. We were all devastated to hear this news because that meant that she might not get to go back to the wild.
Although she has her field ID of Condor #321, we decided to give her an in-house name. Her name is Xananan (pronounced “hah-NAH-nahn”). It is a Chumash word that means, “flying all over.”
After much work and care from our veterinary staff, Xananan was housed alone to recuperate, but was adjacent to other birds for socialization. Thankfully, she was spending time perched near the edge of the pen, near the other birds, showing us that she still wanted to be part of a group. The trauma she suffered apparently did not cause her to want to stay away from other condors. Her ability to fly was definitely compromised, though. She was in our biggest off-exhibit flight pen, but she had difficulties flying from one end to the other because of her missing tail.
Her broken wing feathers have grown in nicely and she gets regular check-ups on the progress of her tail. Much to everyone’s surprise, Xananan started to grow back some of her tail feathers! She has five tail feathers now; condors usually have 12. It doesn’t look like she can grow any more – the damage to the rest of the tail was too extensive and apparently affected the rest of the follicles. But with those five tail feathers, she has been able to fly strongly in her pen. She banks well while turning. She uses her tail as a brake when coming in for a landing. And she gets decent lift when taking off. This gives us all hope that she can be re-released in Mexico!
Despite our excitement, more evaluation is needed before we can send her back to the wild. We want to make sure that she can maneuver well enough to deal with strong winds or evade other condors or golden eagles. It wouldn’t be proper to put her in a dangerous situation if she wasn’t ready for it. For now she is housed with four juvenile condors (5-7 month old) and she is being used as a mentor for them. These four youngsters will be sent to Mexico in 2009. Our goal, with more positive progress, is to send Xananan back with them. Wish her luck!
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