California Condor

Gymnogyps californianus

Image by Scott Frier, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
  • CATHARTIDAE
  • Condor
  • Falconiformes
  • Condor Californiano
  • Condor de Californie
Introduction

North America's largest soaring bird and one of its most famous endangered species, the California Condor is an unmistakable and incredible bird. As early as the late 19th century, interactions with humans began the precipitous decline of these massive scavengers. In the 1980's, unsustainable mortality rates prompted scientists to capture the last remaining wild California Condors and initiate a captive breeding program. After a series of setbacks in the reintroduction program, efforts finally met with success in 2002. In April of that year, a pair of captive-reared California Condors bred successfully in the wild. It was the first time the species had done so for more than 18 years.

Appearance Description

These giants would be hard to confuse with any other North American bird. California Condors can attain wingspans of over 9 feet, and can weigh over 23 pounds, making them the largest wild bird in North America. By comparison, the Bald Eagle's wingspan is not quite 7 feet, and it weighs less than 14 pounds.

California Condors have uniformly black plumage, except for white wing linings. Like other carrion feeders, the head of this species lacks feathers, except for a small patch of black plumage in front of the eyes. The fleshy head, neck and crop of adult birds can be brightly colored in red, purple and yellow. Specialized sacs can be inflated around the head and neck during display behavior. Skin coloration can also be altered through the control of blood flow in these areas.

Even at great distances, the California Condor can be distinguished from other species by its steady flight. Turkey Vultures have noticeably upturned wings, and often "wobble" while soaring. Condors take longer to complete a circle while soaring than do other species such as Golden Eagles, immature Bald Eagles, Turkey Vultures and smaller raptors.

Range Distribution

This species was present in a number of western states prior to the early 19th century, ranging from British Columbia to Baja California, and throughout the west. Lewis and Clark found them on their famous expedition through the Northwest. Early explorers and settlers in Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Alberta and Baja California also reported condors in the early 1800's. There are few estimates of the size of the original wild condor population prior to the arrival of European settlers. By 1950, however, the population had been reduced to about 150 birds, and its range had been restricted to southern California exclusively.

Habitat

Not considered a habitat specialist, the California Condor soars far and wide in search of carrion. Traditionally, it has been found from beaches to high mountainous areas and at many points in between. It mainly requires wide-open areas where food can be found. Most nesting takes place on cliffs.

Feeding

Expending very little energy, these scavengers soar on thermal updrafts and wind currents until they spot potential food sources. Not endowed with the acute sense of smell of the Turkey Vulture, it is believed that the condor finds most of its food by observing other scavengers, such as the Turkey Vulture, Common Raven, and Golden Eagle. When they arrive at a carcass, the sheer size of condors generally guarantees the departure of other scavengers, but Golden Eagles (equipped with powerful talons) often remain and compete for food. Domesticated animals (cattle, sheep etc.) make up a large part of the condor's diet, though mule deer and feral pigs killed by hunters are also food sources. In the past, condors were noted feeding upon marine mammal carcasses (whales, sea lions etc.) along the Pacific Coast; this habit has resumed with the flock at Big Sur, California. Condors will often eat small bones in order to gain calcium. Unfortunately, this habit can lead condors to ingest a variety of manmade objects that are confused with bones.

Reproduction

Wild California Condors are monogamous and will stay with their breeding partner for years, if not for life. Courtship includes aerial displays by both sexes and joint visits to potential nest sites within their territory. Research suggests that female condors pick one nest site from several potential areas visited during courtship. Nest sites are usually located on ledges or in caves, but one California pair has been observed nesting in a burned-out section of a giant sequoia tree. No actual nest is built, though a ring of debris may be accumulated from whatever materials are available near the egg. The female only lays one egg. (Condor eggs resemble chicken eggs, but – at 4.5 inches – are considerably larger). Once the egg is laid, both parents incubate it for nearly 60 days. Single shifts at the nest can last several days. Newly hatched chicks are well developed and covered in a yellow-orange down. The condor chick will not reach full adult-like size for up to four months and will not fledge from the nest site for half a year. Once fledged, the young condor remains dependent upon its parents throughout its entire first year of life.

Migration

California Condors may wander in search of food, but distinct populations are non-migratory. All past populations were thought to be non-migratory as well.

  • 301 (154 in the wild)
  • 301
  • Endangered
Population Status Trends

Since the implementation of the captive breeding program in the 1980s, California Condor numbers have slowly increased. Birds are released to the wild annually, and several pairs have managed to breed successfully at a handful of sites. The small population of California Condors living today exists only due to the efforts of the Condor Recovery Program, and its continued survival still depends on the success of the captive breeding and reintroduction programs.

Conservation Issues

The California Condor, which may live up to 60 years, has few natural predators. The Golden Eagle is the species' chief competitor for food and also poses a threat to condor chicks and eggs. Ravens, black bears and other mammals are potential egg predators as well. Prior to its clash with European settlers, the condor's lack of predators resulted in a low mortality rate. Unfortunately for present-day condors, a low mortality rate often correlates with an equally low rate of reproduction; this is certainly the case with the California Condor. It takes these condors 6 to 8 years to reach sexual maturity, and even after maturity, they generally do not breed every year. The arrival of humans drastically increased mortality rates for the species, but the eons-old rate at which it could replenish its numbers did not change. By 1981, the global population had been reduced to just 22 birds.

The variety of threats faced by condors over the past one and a half centuries has included collection by Native Americans, shooting by later settlers, collisions with power lines and other man-made structures, and incidental poisoning (especially from coyote control programs). Today, the main threat posed to North America's largest bird is lead poisoning. Condors ingest this toxin when they feed on animal carcasses containing lead bullets and are subsequently poisoned.

Immense efforts have been undertaken to save the California Condor from extinction. A number of groups played parts in the conservation planning and monitoring efforts for this species, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service, the California Department of Fish and Game, the National Audubon Society, the Bureau of Land Management, and others. A captive breeding program was initiated at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, the Los Angeles Zoo, and later, The Peregrine Fund's World Center for Birds of Prey. Because of continued losses, all remaining wild condors were captured in 1985 and brought to these institutions. The program eventually increased the condor's numbers to levels where reintroduction was possible. Initial reintroductions met with a variety of problems including mortality from lead poisoning, collision with power lines, and behavioral problems. Despite efforts to prevent condor chicks from imprinting on their human handlers (including the use of condor-like puppets to feed the chicks), the first groups of birds released in California were attracte

What You Can Do

The California Condor is protected under the Endangered Species Act. Audubon continues to work to ensure that this vital legislation is being used to protect our wildlife resources. Learn of the latest news about the Endangered Species Act and how you can help on Audubon's Issues & Action web pages. 

Hunters can help condors, waterfowl, and a variety of other wildlife by avoiding lead-based bullets. The U.S. Army has recently started using bullets made with tungsten-tin and tungsten-nylon cores, rather than lead. If you hunt, use lead-free ammunition! Since 2005, the Arizona Game and Fish Department has offered a free non-lead ammunition program in an attempt to reduce lead exposure to wild condors. Hunters have responded well. If you hunt within California Condor range, or would like to learn more about condors and lead poisoning, see the website of the Arizona Game and Fish Department. In California in 2007, the legislature passed and the governor signed a bill to ban the use of lead bullets in condor range.

If you should observe a condor please report your sighting to The Peregrine Fund biologists at (520) 355-2270 or via e-mail at cparish@peregrinefund.org. Helpful information would include date, time, location, number of birds observed, and wing tag numbers. 

Find out about actions you can take including Audubon programs and activities.

More Information

Learn more about other species protected under the Endangered Species Act

To learn more about California Condors, including the latest seasonal updates, visit The Peregrine Fund Website.

Learn more about the efforts of Audubon's Important Bird Areas program in California.

Learn more about this species and other birds through these resources.

Natural History References

BirdLife International (2006) Species factsheet: Gymnogyps californianus, California Condor 

Snyder, Noel F R. and Schmitt, N. John. 2002. California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus). In The Birds of North America, No. 610 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington, D.C.: The American Ornithologists' Union; and Ithaca: Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

The Peregrine Fund World Center For Birds of Prey.http://www.peregrinefund.org. Website accessed August 2007.

Conservation Status References

BirdLife International (2006) Species factsheet: Gymnogyps californianus, California Condor 

Snyder, Noel F R. and Schmitt, N. John. 2002. California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus). In The Birds of North America, No. 610 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington, D.C.: The American Ornithologists' Union; and Ithaca: Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

The Peregrine Fund World Center For Birds of Prey. http://www.peregrinefund.org. Website accessed August 2007.