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Help develop a Bird ID tool!

California Condor

Gymnogyps californianus ORDER: ACCIPITRIFORMES FAMILY: CATHARTIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Critically Endangered

The spectacular but endangered California Condor is the largest bird in North America. These superb gliders travel widely to feed on carcasses of deer, pigs, cattle, sea lions, whales, and other animals. Pairs nest in caves high on cliff faces. The population fell to just 22 birds in the 1980s, but there are now some 230 free-flying birds in California, Arizona, and Baja California with another 160 in captivity. Lead poisoning remains a severe threat to their long-term prospects.

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Keys to identification Help

Hawklike
Hawklike
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    California Condors are the largest wild birds in North America. The wings are exceptionally long and broad, with long primary feathers giving a fingered look to the wingtips. In flight the body is noticeably bulky, the head appears small, and the tail is short and broad.

  • Color Pattern

    Adults are black with striking white patches under the wings. The naked head and neck are yellowish orange. Immatures have dark heads, grayer necks, and mottled grayish instead of clear white patches under the wings. Adult coloration is reached at 6-8 years of age.

  • Behavior

    Condors are masterful soarers that rarely flap their wings. They have a solid, heavy appearance in the air, and don’t get buffeted by the wind in the way that smaller soaring birds do. Condors are social birds that form groups around carcasses, at bathing spots, and at roosts.

  • Habitat

    California Condors scavenge for carrion in habitats ranging from Pacific beaches to mountain forests and meadows. They nest in caves on cliff faces in mountains up to 6,000 feet in elevation. Their size makes take-off difficult, leading them to use high perches for easier take-offs.

Range Map Help

California Condor Range Map
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Field MarksHelp

Similar Species

The immense size of California Condors is hard to judge from far away, making it surprisingly easy to mistake them for other raptors. Look for the very heavy, stable flight style with almost no flapping. When condors do flap, it’s usually a single, deep wingbeat with the wingtips almost meeting on the downstroke. Turkey Vultures hold their wings above the horizontal and are much less stable in flight, constantly teetering or rocking as they soar. Golden Eagles and immature Bald Eagles show variable white coloring in the underwing and tail, but they don’t show the large, continuous white underwing patches of an adult condor. Red-tailed Hawks and other buteos have much shorter wings and usually show white on the body from below.

Find This Bird

California Condors nest in remote locations that are hard to access, but they travel widely in search of food. If you’re within range of condors in central California (the Big Sur coast or Pinnacles National Monument), southern California (inland from Ventura in the Sespe wilderness), or around the Grand Canyon, keep your eyes peeled for large, dark soaring birds. Study them closely to make sure they don’t teeter like a vulture, and check their proportions to help rule out buteos, eagles, and small planes.

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By the Thinnest of Margins, Living Bird, Autumn 2013

Get the Lead Out: Ingesting lead bullet fragments has a devastating effect on wildlife—and humans. Story and photos in Living Bird magazine.