Living Bird Magazine
California CondorGymnogyps californianus
- ORDER: Cathartiformes
- FAMILY: Cathartidae
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.More ID Info
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.
- Cóndor Californiano (Spanish)
- Condor de Californie (French)
- Cool Facts
- 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.
- 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.