Meet a Marvelous Mentor: Itaxmay

Posted at 12:16 pm September 24, 2008 by Ron Webb

When people hear about California condors at a captive breeding facility, they understandably assume that all birds there are involved in breeding pairs, or are chicks waiting to be released to the wild. In actuality, one of the most important roles a captive condor can play is the job of mentor.

A mentor is an adult or subadult bird that acts as a type of coach for the younger birds waiting to be released. Condors are very social, often perching, feeding, traveling, and roosting in groups. To perform well in a group, one needs to know how to interact with others. For our parent-reared chicks, the parents play this role, showing them where to perch/roost, when to avoid trouble, how to compete for food, and what areas are acceptable feeding sites. But for the chicks that have to be reared by a puppet, another mentor must be employed – because, after all, no matter how skilled a condor keeper may be with a puppet, we don’t know how to teach a bird to be a bird!

The mentor we use at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park is a 12-year-old female named Itaxmay (pronounced “ee-TOCKS-may”). Itaxmay was hatched at the Los Angeles Zoo in April 1996 and her studbook number is 141. Her name is a Chumash word meaning “to be surprised.” Before she hatched, the keepers at the LA Zoo noticed that she was positioned improperly in the shell. Her head was positioned in a way that always results in the chick suffocating before it hatches. The keepers were able to assist in the hatching, thus saving her life! When she hatched, her family was underrepresented in the condor population, so the decision was made to not release her and to use her in a breeding pair when she matured.

In December 1996, she moved to the Wild Animal Park, and has been here ever since. As the release program grew and protocols evolved, we needed properly behaved birds to be mentors for recently fledged chicks. A few of the subadults were targeted for this role, but none showed more potential than Itaxmay. She was always uninterested in approaching the keepers, often acting frightened of our presence. She always competed well during feeding with her penmates and was never overly aggressive in her interactions. In 2000, Itaxmay was housed with her first cohort of release candidates.

Itaxmay turned out to be a great mentor. She was firm with the youngsters, but never tormented them. She would displace or move the kids just enough to show them who was in charge. By being displaced by a more experienced bird, the fledglings were learning how to best interact with older birds. Eventually, when they learned “the rules,” they would perch, feed, and roost with Itaxmay. This behavior has proven invaluable for birds that are released to the wild. The field biologists have reported that condors that are not socialized well often die, disappear, or have to be returned to captivity for behavioral reasons.

Itaxmay is currently housed with three youngsters waiting to be shipped to Baja California. This will be the last group of release candidates she will mentor. In early October 2008, we will be shipping her back to the Los Angeles Zoo. The California Condor Recovery Team has decided that it’s time for Itaxmay to contribute to the Recovery Program in a different capacity. She will be paired with a male condor, named Sequoia. So even though, we at the Park are losing a terrific mentor, the Condor Program is gaining an exciting new member to the breeding population. There is no doubt that Itaxmay and Sequoia will be producing excellent little release candidates in the near future!

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3 Responses to “Meet a Marvelous Mentor: Itaxmay”

  1. Yadira Galindo says:

    Darlene you can see California condors at the following zoos: San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park, Los Angeles Zoo and Oregon Zoo. Only in the past couple of months have two new California condor exhibits opened at the Santa Barbara Zoo and San Diego Zoo. You can also see condors at the The Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho. Or you can look for wild condors in Central California particularly along Highway 1 in Big Sur, at the Grand Canyon and in Baja California, Mexico at the Sierra San Pedro de Martir National Park. Happy condor watching.

  2. xoxo, darlene cutie says:

    i want to meet one in real life! where can u c one?

  3. Joejuaness says:

    Very interesing to read about this fantastic bird and everything she’s been through. Thanks for the post!

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