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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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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
46.1–52.8 in
117–134 cm
Wingspan
109.1 in
277 cm
Weight
246.9–349.2 oz
7000–9900 g
Relative Size
Larger than a Bald Eagle; this is the largest bird in North America.
Other Names
  • Condor de Californie (French)
  • Condor californiano, Buitre (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • What’s in a name? The name “condor” comes from cuntur, which originated from the Inca name for the Andean Condor. Their scientific name, Gymnogyps californianus, comes from the Greek words gymnos, meaning naked, and refers to the head, and gyps meaning vulture; californianus is Latin and refers to the birds’ range.
  • In the late Pleistocene, about 40,000 years ago, California Condors were found throughout North America. At this time, giant mammals roamed the continent, offering condors a reliable food supply. When Lewis and Clark explored the Pacific Northwest in 1805 they found condors there. Until the 1930s, they occurred in the mountains of Baja California.
  • One reason California Condor recovery has been slow is their extremely slow reproduction rate. Female condors lay only one egg per nesting attempt, and they don’t always nest every year. The young depend on their parents for more than 12 months, and take 6-8 years to reach maturity.
  • Condors soar slowly and stably. They average about 30 mph in flight and can get up to over 40 mph. They take about 16 seconds to complete a circle in soaring flight. By comparison, Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles normally circle in 12–14 seconds, and Red-tailed Hawks circle in about 8–10 seconds.
  • At carcasses, California Condors dominate other scavengers. The exception is when a Golden Eagle is present. Although the condor weighs about twice as much as an eagle, the superior talons of the eagle command respect.
  • Condors can survive 1–2 weeks without eating. When they find a carcass they eat their fill, storing up to 3 pounds of meat in their crop (a part of the esophagus) before they leave.
  • California Condors once foraged on offshore islands, visiting mammal and seabird colonies to eat carrion, eggs and possibly live prey such as nestlings.
  • In cold weather, condors raise their neck feathers to keep warm. In hot weather, condors (and other vultures) urinate onto a leg. As the waste evaporates, it cools off blood circulating in the leg, lowering the whole body temperature. Condors bathe frequently and this helps avoid buildup of wastes on the legs.
  • Adult condors sometimes temporarily restrain an overenthusiastic nestling by placing a foot on its neck and clamping it to the floor. This forceful approach is also a common way for an adult to remove a nestling’s bill from its throat at the end of a feeding.
  • Young may take months to perfect flight and landings. “Crash” landings have been observed in young four months after their first flight.
  • California Condors can probably live to be 60 or more years old—although none of the condors now alive are older than 40 yet.

Habitat


Mountains

California Condors have been reintroduced to mountains of southern and central California, Arizona, Utah, and Baja California. Nesting habitats range from scrubby chaparral to forested mountain regions up to about 6,000 feet elevation. Foraging areas are in open grasslands and can be far from primary nesting sites, requiring substantial daily commutes. Condors glide and soar when foraging, so they depend on reliable air movements and terrain that enables extended soaring flight. They are so heavy that they can have trouble taking off, so they often use open, windy areas where they can run downhill or launch themselves from a cliff edge or exposed branch to get airborne. Before captive breeding programs began in the 1980s all remaining condors foraged in an area encompassing about 2,700 square miles; this range is now expanding as the wild population grows. Young condors learn the full extent of their range partly from other more experienced birds.

Food


Carrion

California Condors eat carrion of land and marine mammals such as deer, cattle, pigs, rabbits, sea lions, and whales. They swallow bone chips and marine shells to meet their calcium needs. They favor small to medium-sized carcasses, probably because smaller bones are easily consumed and digested. Condors locate carcasses with their keen eyesight (not by smell) by observing other scavengers assembled at a carcass. Once they land they take over the carcass from smaller species, but they are tolerant of each other and usually feed in groups. Condors are wary of humans while feeding, which is probably why they do not use roadkill as a food source. In captivity, condors consume 5–7 percent of their body mass per day to maintain their weight, but because their crop (an enlarged part of the esophagus) can hold 3 pounds of food, they may only have to eat every 2–3 days. Young are fed by regurgitation.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
1 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
3.6–4.7 in
9.2–12 cm
Egg Width
2.4–2.7 in
6.2–6.8 cm
Incubation Period
53–60 days
Nestling Period
163–180 days
Egg Description
Pale blue-green bleaching to white or creamy.
Condition at Hatching
Helpless, covered in white down with eyes open.
Nest Description

Condors lay their eggs directly on the dirt floor of a cliff ledge or cave, or they construct loose piles of debris from whatever is available at the nest site, such as gravel, leaves, bark, and bones. Nests have loosely defined boundaries and are usually about 3 feet across and up to 8 inches deep.

Nest Placement

Cliff

Condors nest mainly in natural cavities or caves in cliffs, though they sometimes also use trees, such as coast redwood and, historically, the giant sequoia. (As the wild population grows, there is the possibility they may return to the sequoia groves in the Sierra Nevada.) Condors have multiple nesting sites and may switch sites between years. Females make the final decision on which nest location to use.

Behavior


Soaring

California Condors can cover hundreds of miles in one flight as they soar for hours at a time, looking for carrion. These long-distance travelers pair off during the breeding season but are highly social at roosting, bathing, and feeding sites; individuals recognize one another. Generally, condors are not aggressive towards each other, though dominant birds will threaten opponents by standing erect, inflating air sacs in the head and neck, opening the bill and eventually lunging toward the opponent. Pairs are monogamous. They share nesting duties nearly equally, stay together throughout the year, and usually endure until one member dies. Courtship involves coordinated pair flights, mutual preening, and displays. Young are dependent on their parents for at least 6 months after fledging; consequently most condors do not nest in successive years. Condors bathe frequently; mates and chicks help groom each other’s feathers and skin. They clean up after feeding by rubbing the head and neck on a nearby rock or other surface. Condors sun themselves, which helps dry feathers prior to flight and helps the bird warm up. Condors roost together on horizontal limbs of tall trees, on ledges, or in cliff potholes. Sleeping condors sometimes lie prone on their perch with their heads tucked behind their shoulder blades. Given their size, condors are not normally hunted by other animals, except humans and occasionally Golden Eagles; however, nestlings and eggs are at risk of predation from Common Ravens, Golden Eagles, and black bears. Young condors play, especially as late-stage nestlings, mock-capturing all sorts of objects and vegetation, and leaping about in seeming exuberance.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Critically Endangered

California Condors are critically endangered. All of the more than 400 condors now alive are descended from 27 birds that were brought into captivity in 1987, in a controversial but successful captive breeding program. As of 2013, there were more than 230 individuals in the wild in California, Arizona, and Baja California. The number has been rising steadily each year, as captive-bred birds are released and wild pairs fledge young from their own nests. More than 160 additional condors live in captivity at breeding programs at The Peregrine Fund, Los Angeles Zoo, and San Diego Zoo. Condors have benefited greatly from the Endangered Species Act and from aggressive efforts to breed them in captivity and re-release them into the wild, but the survival of the species is still dependent on human intervention. The major threat is lead poisoning, caused by ammunition fragments in carcasses they eat. Historically, reasons for their decline also included accidental poisoning from lead and from strychnine-laced carcasses left out for coyote control programs. Hunting by humans also had a substantial effect on condor populations. Condor recovery has been slow because of their slow reproductive rate: they produce only 1 egg every 1–2 years and do not achieve sexual maturity until age 6-8 years. Wild birds are still supplied with clean (lead-free) carcasses, but they also feed on their own, sometimes on lead-contaminated carcasses that can result in their deaths. To alleviate the lead-poisoning problem, workers catch each condor twice per year to test their blood lead levels; birds that test high are treated to remove the lead through a technique called chelation. In 2010 the Peregrine Fund reported that 72 percent of condors tested in the Vermilion Cliffs, Arizona, showed lead in the blood, and 34 condors had to be treated. The only route to self-sustaining wild populations will be by solving the lead-poisoning problem. Promising first steps have been taken, including a 2008 ban on lead ammunition used for hunting in the condor’s California range, and an innovative voluntary program in Arizona.

Credits

Range Map Help

California Condor Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Nonmigratory.

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.