California Condor Fact File
Credit: Public Domain
Wild 60 years
Captive 60 years
California condors are among the world’s most endangered birds with their population having dropped to just 14 birds in the 1900s. With captive breeding and release efforts their population is now growing.
These animals are restricted to small areas in California, Arizona and Baja California. Previously they occurred along the west coast from British Colombia to Baja California.
They were the first species to be listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1973.
Unfortunately the species population continues to decline with over half of the deaths attributed to lead poisoning. Their egg shells are also thinned through DDT exposure.
Read on to learn more about these amazing avians.
What does the California condor look like?
Across their body the California condor is covered by black feathers except for a triangle of white on the underside of the wing. Around the base of the neck is a thick collar of black feathers.. The head and neck is naked with coloration varying from gray to yellow and red. If they get excited this will become more intensely colored.
Their naked head is an adaptation which prevent bacteria getting in to their feathers where it could grow and make them ill. The collar at the base of the neck can be raised to keep their head warm in cold weather.
The iris of the eye is colored brown. Their feet are colored grey and the legs are pink.
An average California condor will measure 1.1m-1.4m (43-55in) long with a wingspan of between 2.5-3m (8.2-9.8ft) across. They have an average weight being 7-14.1kg (15-31lb). Males tend to be larger than females.
California condors are the largest species of land bird to live in North America.
What does the California condor eat?
This species is carnivorous. Their main food source is carrion with cattle being their favorite. They will also seek out the carcasses of deer, goats, sheep, donkeys, horses, pigs, cougars, bears, whales, California sea lions, rabbits, weasels, gophers, foxes and coyotes. On occasion they may eat a bird or reptile.
In the past most of their food came from American bison and pronghorns but these are now rare meaning they are not used as a food source as frequently.
Due to not having a sense of smell this species will look around for other predators to find a carcass. When arriving at a carcass they will displace common ravens and turkey vultures. In turn golden eagles and coyotes force them away.
Some California condors may go without drinking for up to two days. They prefer clean water but may drink from stagnant pools.
As a scavenger they help to clean up the environment by removing decaying animals which could spread disease.
Credit: Public Domain
Where can you find the California condor?
North America is the native home of the California condor. Previously the species was found along the entire western seaboard from British Colombia to Baja California. Throughout the 19th century they experienced sharp population declines and by 1937 were restricted solely to California.
Now they are restricted to California, Arizona and Baja California, Mexico where they have been reintroduced.
What kind of environment does the California condor live in?
They make their home on wooded mountains and in coniferous forests, oak savannas and the rocky scrublands. Often they will be found near cliffs and large trees where they can nest.
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How does the California condor produce its young?
This species is monogamous and will mate for life. To attract a mate male condors perform a display during which his head will turn red and his wings spread out. With the neck feathers puffed out he will approach a female. In the event she submits to him her head will lower.
Breeding takes place from January to March.
Once they are paired they find a cliff, crevice or burnt out tree where they can make a nest. This is not a nest in the conventional sense with only rocks being added as a substrate.
After a successful mating a pale green-blue egg is laid between mid-January and March. For the next 54-58 days the parents will incubate this egg. On average each parent sits for between 2 and 5 days before swapping. While incubating they spend most of their time sleeping.
If they lose an egg they may lay another. In captivity this is used to accelerate the breeding program with one egg being artificially raised. This allows double the number of eggs to be produced each year.
Chicks are covered with grayish down at birth and their eyes already open. It may take 2 ½ days for the chick to break out of the egg after it first begins to break. Their head, neck, underwing and belly are bare meaning the parents will keep it warm.
Eight weeks after hatching they make their first trips out of the nest. After eighteen weeks they will begin to get juvenile plumage. Full plumage develops by 24-25 weeks old.
At 5-6 months old the young California condor will take their first flights.
By 8-9 months they will journey out on their own. Their parents continue to provide food throughout their first winter though.
Sexual maturity is achieved at six years old.
Credit: Public Domain
What does the California condor do with its day?
This bird is diurnal and spends most of its day perching with some time spent hunting. While perching they spend most of their time preening with some time spent sunning.
When a mated pair is not looking after a chick they will fly together. They are considered social and may be seen roosting and feeding with other birds.
These birds will clean their feathers using their beak in a process known as preening.
In flight they will reach speeds of up to 88km/h (55mph). To help them stay aloft for long periods they will soar on thermal currents.
California condors lack vocal cords and as a result their vocalizations are limited to a grunt or a hiss.
Credit: Public Domain
Predators and Threats
What is impacting the survival of the California condor?
Natural predators of the California condor include the golden eagle and humans. Golden eagles and black bears also prey upon young. Common ravens will sometimes take eggs.
The population of the California condor has been increasing following their near extinction in the mid 1900s. They are the subject of intense conservation efforts both through captive breeding and wild reintroductions and habitat restoration.
At present the entire wild population consists of around 200 birds of breeding age.
Today the largest threat is lead poisoning. Over half of the deaths in the population are a result of this. Populations along the coast also suffer from thin eggshells due to DDT exposure through their prey.
They may be electrocuted if they land on a power line or collide with it. Birds being prepared for release are taught to avoid powerlines.
An emerging threat is West Nile virus. At present all birds are vaccinated against the disease but as the population grows with wild breeding it is thought this will become unfeasible.
They can consume small species of trash which accumulates in the digestive tract and can affect them.
The current growth of the population is only possible through releases of captive bred birds. Without this it would remain in decline.
Below is a brief overview of the recovery project for this species.
1982 saw just 21 birds found. US Fish and Wildlife, California department of Fish & Game, the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park (now the San Diego Zoo Safari Park) along with the Los Angeles Zoo decided to begin a captive breeding program.
In 1985 it was decided that all the wild California condors would be captured to join the breeding program. In 1987 the last one was captured meaning 26 birds were part of the breeding program.
By 1992 there was 52 birds in captivity and 2 of these were released into the wild with another 6 joining them later that year.
On November 5, 2003 the first chick to successfully fledge in the wild left its nest.
California condors have the lowest reproductive rate of any bird.
The California condor’s numbers fell to just 14 at one time.
Some Native American tribes call the California condor the thunderbird because they believe that the beating of these birds long wings produces thunder.
Each condor which is released to the wild is equipped with a wing tag to help identify them. You may notice these in the images on this page. Some also have a transmitter attached so that scientists can track their movements.
Credit: Public Domain
BirdLife International. 2020. Gymnogyps californianus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2020: e.T22697636A181151405. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2020-3.RLTS.T22697636A181151405.en. Downloaded on 27 September 2021.
Oregon Zoo. 2021. California condor. [online] Available at: <https://www.oregonzoo.org/discover/animals/california-condor> [Accessed 27 September 2021].
Peregrinefund.org. 2021. California Condor | The Peregrine Fund. [online] Available at: <https://peregrinefund.org/explore-raptors-species/vultures/california-condor> [Accessed 27 September 2021].
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