Written by Chelsea Wellmer, AmeriCorps Visitor Engagement Member
The birth of a female Andean condor chick named Calar marks the end of a 30-year dry spell at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. Parents Gryph and Laurel, the newest breeding pair, have laid an egg each year since 2008 when they came to the Zoo, but this is the first egg to hatch. Calar is only the 14th chick to hatch at a North American institution in the last decade. A big credit for this success was the installation of a new nesting box in 2014. Built by a team of dedicated Zoo volunteers, the box was designed to resemble a cave off of a cliff face that wild counterparts might inhabit while nesting, with the hopes that it would enhance breeding success with Gryph and Laurel.
Found predominantly in mountainous, coastal, and desert areas, Andean condors are the largest flying land birds in the Western Hemisphere, and the largest flying birds in the world if combining weight and measured wingspan. They are built to soar, with the Andean condor’s wingspan being between 8.5 to 10.5 feet in length. Thermal air currents help propel the condor upward, saving energy and allowing Andean condors to float on warm air currents for hours without tiring. Their wingtips will spread out in flight, much like the wingtips on a plane, allowing for better control.
Andean condors in the wild face a shrinking habitat and, therefore, a decreasing prey population. As a perceived threat to livestock and other domesticated animals, they also face persecution from human neighbours. These great birds provide a necessary service as recyclers and scavengers. Eating carrion, Andean condors help prevent the spread of disease and toxins; they are nature’s clean-up crew. Conservation efforts are necessary to bolster populations and previous reintroductions into the wild have been promising.
Since 1989, the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden has partnered with the Andean Condor Species Survival Plan (SSP) to help bolster Andean condor populations in South America through captive-breeding and reintroduction to the wild. However, Andean condors are slow breeders, being able to only hatch one chick every two years, which creates a challenge to breeding them in captivity. In addition to its efforts to produce chicks, one of the Zoo’s offsite facilities has served as a staging area for condors on their way to being released in their native country of Colombia. To date, more than 80 Andean condors have been released into the wild through this program.
Biologists in Colombia have confirmed that the reintroduced condors are thriving in the wild, and even breeding and raising offspring – a huge success for Andean condors and conservation efforts. In conjunction with the Universidad Javeriana and the Corporacion Autonoma Boyaca, reintroduced condors are fitted with satellite telemetry units to monitor ranging patterns. By studying where these birds choose to spend their time, Andean condor conservationists can make well-informed decisions and recommendations regarding conservation and education efforts to save the species.
Calar will remain in the SSP captive-breeding program, with the hopes that she will one day produce offspring that can join their counterparts in the wild. In the meantime, Zoo visitors can expect to see Calar more often this winter as she becomes more comfortable venturing around her exhibit with Gryph and Laurel. Andean condor chicks often stay with their parents for up to a year, learning how to be a successful adult; with an entire species counting on her, she has a lot of learning to do. The next time you are at the Zoo, come check out Calar in the Andean condor aviary across from Reptile House.