California condor

COMMON NAME: California condor

SCIENTIFIC NAME: Gymnogyps californianus

The California condor has a wingspan of 9-9.5 feet and weighs approximately 20 pounds. It is the largest flying bird in North America. Adult plumage is acquired at 5 to 6 years of age. The California condor is characterized by a black body and wings with large triangular patches of white extending from the base of the underwing along the entire length of the leading edge. The naked head and neck are a reddish-orange that intensifies when the bird is excited, agitated, or engaging in courtship displays or copulation. Juvenile birds are almost completely black with gray heads and necks. The underwing triangle is heavily mottled and not as distinct as it is on adults.

Prior to the arrival of pioneers, the condor’s range extended along the Pacific Coast from British Colombia south to Baja California. By 1940, the range was reduced to the coastal mountains of southern California, with nesting occurring primarily in the chaparral-covered mountains of the Los Padres National Forest and foraging in the grasslands of the San Joaquin Valley. Today, condors have been released back into their former range in the Los Padres National Forest, in the Ventana Wilderness Sanctuary near Big Sur in central California, and over the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

California condors stay in their home range throughout the year and do not migrate. To survive, they require large areas for roosting, nesting, and foraging.  Roosting condors require large old-growth trees, snags, or isolated rocky outcrops and cliffs. Large open grasslands and oak savanna foothills that support populations of large mammals such as deer and cattle are required for foraging. Condors may travel up to 150 miles in one day in search of food.

California condors usually nest in small, shallow caves and rock crevices on steep cliffs with minimal disturbance levels. Some nests can be found in holes in the top of giant sequoia trees.

Condors do not kill for food; they are carrion eaters and prefer to feed on the carcasses of large mammals including bison, deer, and marine mammals such as whales and seals. More recently, condors’ diets have been comprised mostly of cattle and deer. A condor may eat three to four pounds of food at a time and may not need to feed again for three to four days. The condor finds its food by sight or by following other scavenging birds. Condors normally feed in a group where a strict hierarchy of dominance usually occurs. Dominant birds usually eat first and have available to them the choicest parts of the carcass.

The Raptor Center treated its first California condor patient in the fall of 2005. It suffered with a broken wing and when healed was sent back to Arizona for release.

The California condor is listed as a critically endangered species. The decline of the California condor coincided with the arrival of Europeans in the West. Human activities such as egg collecting, hunting, poisoning of predators, and habitat destruction took their toll on the California condor population. The California Condor Recovery Program is working to establish three healthy, separate populations of condors, one in California, one in Arizona, and a breeding population in captivity.