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June 18, 2018  |  Login

California Condor
Gymnogyps californianus

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What Are They Like?

Part of the vulture family, California condors are the largest North American land bird. They weigh about 20 pounds (9 kilograms), measure 43-52 inches (109-132 centimeters) in length, and have wingspans of up to 9.5 feet (2.9 meters). California condors have striking reddish, bald heads and necks, dull gray-black feathers and blunt claws. They have a triangle-shaped patch of white, visible only when airborne, on the underside of their wings. Immature condors have black heads and a dark mottled under-wing.

Where Do They Live?

The species once ranged along the entire Pacific Coast from British Columbia to Baja California. Today, California condors are found exclusively in the Grand Canyon area of Arizona and in the western coastal mountains of California. They live in mountainous terrain that provides thermal updrafts for soaring, cliffs for nesting, trees for roosting, and wide open spaces for takeoffs and landings.

Did You Know?
Condors are fastidious birds—after eating, they clean their heads and necks by rubbing them on grass, rocks or tree branches.

How Are Babies Made?

California condors do not become sexually mature until they are six years old and may not start breeding until age seven or eight. They nest in shallow caves found on cliff faces that usually have nearby trees for roosting and a clear approach for easy takeoffs and landings. The female will lay a single egg directly on the floor of the cave. Eggs hatch after 54 - 58 days. Baby condors begin to learn how to fly at about six months of age, but do not move away from their mothers until around nine months.

What Do They Eat?

Like their vulture cousins, California condors are carrion eaters, feeding mostly on the dead carcasses of cattle, sheep, deer and horses in any state of decay. Occasionally, condors will eat small live mammals. Condors can travel up to 160 miles (257 kilometers) in one day to scavenge for food, and can go a few days or even a few weeks without eating. When they find food, though, they will gorge themselves on two to three pounds of meat at a time—sometimes to the point of being unable to lift themselves off the ground.

Did You Know?
California condors can soar on warm updrafts for hours, reaching speeds of more than 55 miles (88.5 kilometers) per hour and altitudes of 15,000 feet (4,572 meters).

What Do They Do?

Unlike other birds, condors do not have large sternums to anchor their large flight muscles, so they have trouble flying by flapping their wings. Because of these physical restrictions, condors prefer to soar on the thermal updrafts that can be found around mountains, gorges and hillsides. Like their vulture cousins, California condors are social birds that spend much of their time feeding and roosting together. Many condors spend hours a day preening their feathers, and bathe frequently.

How Concerned Should We Be?

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has a “Red List” of species in danger globally and listed the California condor as “critically endangered.” By the late 1970s, scientists estimated that the entire population of California condors had dropped to 25 to 30 birds. Although the exact reason for the decline isn’t known, random shooting generally is considered the single most serious cause, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Other factors include collection of condor eggs, poisoning from substances used by ranchers to eradicate livestock predators, and poisoning from ingesting lead bullet fragments from the carcasses of animals on which the condors feed. Habitat loss also contributed to the condor’s decline, as development replaced much of the open country condors need to find food. Their slow rate of reproduction and years spent reaching breeding maturity make condors even more vulnerable to these threats.

What's Being Done?

The California Condor Recovery Plan was established in 1992 by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and currently manages two geographically separate populations, one in California and the other in Arizona, each with 150 birds and at least 15 breeding pairs. While the outlook for the California condor is more promising than it was years ago, there is more work ahead. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will continue releasing California condors into the wild in hopes of establishing two separate, self-sustaining wild populations of birds. Although captive breeding and recovery efforts have increased the number of birds, the population of California condors is still considered “Endangered and Experimental” under the ESA.


California Condors

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