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Everything You Need to Know About the California Condor

I have always had an interest in nature and birds of prey in particular. Learn about these majestic creatures that grace our skies.

The California condor is North America’s largest bird of prey and one of the largest flying birds throughout the world. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most endangered species in the world.

Considered a sacred bird to Native Americans, the California Condor is perhaps best known today due to a highly publicized captive breeding program that will hopefully keep this majestic bird from becoming extinct.

California Condor in Flight in Zion National Park

California Condor in Flight in Zion National Park

Physical Description

If you've never seen a California condor, which is very possible due to their limited numbers and range, you will be amazed at their size. Their body can measure from 3.5 to 4.5 feet in length, and they have a wingspan that can reach 9 to 10 feet from wingtip to wingtip.

A full-grown large adult male can weigh upwards of 30 pounds, but they average about 20 to 25 pounds. Unlike other birds of prey, the female is slightly smaller than the male. They are one of the seven species of the New World vulture family. With their featherless heads and necks, their look is certainly more vulture-like than raptor-like.

Adult California condors are mostly black except for a large triangular white patch located under each wing. Their legs and feet are grey, and they have few feathers on their heads and necks. The skin color on their heads can range from yellow to pink to bright orange and is capable of changing color depending on their emotional state.

Their beaks are powerful and very sharp, as they must be capable of cutting through animal hides when feeding. With no distinctive trademark call, their vocalization is limited to grunting and hissing.

A California Condor in Grand Canyon, Arizona

A California Condor in Grand Canyon, Arizona

Range and Habitat

The current range of the California condor is limited to a few areas in the western United States and the northern Baja California section of Mexico. In the United States, they can be found in northern sections of Arizona around the Grand Canyon and southern Utah in addition to the coastal mountain areas of central and southern California.

At one time, the California condor could be found throughout the western United States from Mexico all the way to Canada. They were even found as far east as New York and Florida at one time.

The condor is usually found in areas with high cliffs or very large trees. They typically use rocky crevices or caves as nesting sites, although nests have also been discovered in cavities of large sequoia trees along the coast of California.

Diet

Like other vultures, the California condor is a scavenger. They will feed on the carcasses of large mammals such as deer, cattle, sheep, horses, and pigs. Interestingly, they will also feed on marine animals, such as dead seals, whales, and salmon.

Since condors do not have a sense of smell, they rely on their exceptional eyesight to spot carcasses. Condors' territories are quite large, and they can travel over a hundred miles in a day in search of food. Because of their large size, they can usually scare away other scavengers with the exception of golden eagles, who are certainly willing to fight condors over carcasses. Because they eat intermittently, condor swill normally gorge themselves when feeding and then go a few days to over a week before eating again.

A Group of Condors Feeding on a Carcass

A Group of Condors Feeding on a Carcass

Reproduction

California condors reach their sexual maturity at five to six years of age and at this time will seek out a mate. Like other birds of prey, they mate for life. Once a nesting site has been located, a pair will produce one egg every other year. The egg is usually laid in the February-to-April time frame and is incubated by both parents. The incubation period will last about eight weeks.

The young condors remain in the nest area for many months tended to by the parents and will fly after five or six months have passed. They remain under the watchful eye of the parents until they are into their second year before heading out on their own.

 An adult California condor sits with its 30-day old chick in a cave nest near Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge, California, USA.

An adult California condor sits with its 30-day old chick in a cave nest near Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge, California, USA.

Behavior

Despite its large size, the California condor is remarkably graceful in flight. They glide more than they flap, and once at elevation, they can glide for miles without flapping their wings. Condors have been known to fly at up to 55 mph and as high as 15,000 feet.

They prefer to roost and nest in high perches and cliffs so that they can attain flight with little to no wing flapping. Condors can be seen soaring in high circles using just the rising heat thermals to keep them aloft, and visitors to Grand Canyon National Park are often treated to this spectacular display

A California Condor Soaring Over the Grand Canyon

A California Condor Soaring Over the Grand Canyon

Status

The California condor is one of the world’s rarest and most endangered species. Due to habitat destruction, poaching, and lead poisoning, their numbers declined dramatically during the 20th century, and by the 1980s, only a handful of birds remained in the wild.

In 1987, the United States government created a conservation plan that called for the capture of the last 22 wild condors. These few surviving birds were brought to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and the Los Angeles Zoo where a captive breeding program was started. Four years later, their numbers had grown, and in 1991, they started reintroducing the California condor back into the wild. Those initial 22 birds back in 1987 have led to over 500 known condors today at last count with more than half of them living in the wild.

A Condor Puppet Feeding a Condor Chick

A Condor Puppet Feeding a Condor Chick

One of the major obstacles to the captive breeding program was the fact that the California condor only lays one egg every other year. However, researchers discovered that a breeding pair would produce a second egg if the first one was lost, so they soon began removing the first egg produced in captivity, which resulted in the pair producing a second egg.

While the condor parents would raise the chick from the second egg, biologists used condor “puppets” to raise the other chick. This basically doubled egg production and gave the condor captive recovery program a major boost.

A Beautiful Photo of a California Condor in Flight

A Beautiful Photo of a California Condor in Flight

Fun Facts

  • Unlike other birds of prey, condors do not have talons. They have nails that are like toenails.
  • The California condors raised in captivity through the captive breeding program were trained to avoid power lines and people in an effort to reduce the number of fatalities once released into the wild.
  • Condors' bald heads were perfectly designed by nature to help keep food from sticking to their heads as they feed.
  • Condors have no voice box, which is why they can only grunt and hiss.
  • California Condors are extremely social birds and will congregate in groups to feed and roost together.
  • Unlike most other bird species, condor chicks are born with their eyes open.
  • When a male California condor gets excited, the color of his head changes from pink to red.
  • To keep themselves cool, California condors urinate on their own legs.
  • Despite their reputation as being somewhat “dirty”, California condors are actually extremely clean. They spend a lot of time preening, bathing, and drying their feathers. After feeding, they will rub their head and necks on branches and rocks to clean themselves.
  • California condors are one of the longest-living birds in the world and can survive up to 60 years in the wild.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Bill De Giulio

Comments

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on August 23, 2012:

Hi Au fait. It looks like they will be endangered for many years to come as their numbers continue to recover. It's been a lot of fun learning about these amazing birds. Thanks so much for stopping by to read, comments, vote and of course thank you for sharing. Have a great day.

C E Clark from North Texas on August 22, 2012:

Very interesting hub. Had no idea they had toenails. I have read about them before years ago in elementary school and they were endangered then too. You have lots of interesting facts about these birds here. Great hub!

Voted up, interesting, useful, and awesome! Will share!

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on August 11, 2012:

Hi SweetbeariesArt. The California Condor is actually a member of the vulture family and does look similar. They are larger however as you mentioned. How fortunate that you have seen this magnificent bird. Thanks for stopping by to read and comment. Have a great day.

SweetbeariesArt from California on August 10, 2012:

As a kid I mixed up turkey vultures with California condors, which look similar, but are a bit smaller.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on August 03, 2012:

Thank You Lesley. Another amazing bird. Must be quite a sight to watch them soaring in the Grand Canyon. Thank you for your continued support, much appreciated. Have a great day.

Movie Master from United Kingdom on August 03, 2012:

It must be wonderful to see a Condor in flight, you just can't appreciate the size of this bird!

Another wonderful hub, I especially enjoyed the 'fun facts'

Thank you and voted up!

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on August 02, 2012:

Hi whonunuwho. Thank you for stopping by to read and comment. I sure hope the California Condor makes it. It would be such a shame if this magnificent bird didn't make it. Shame on mankind for letting it get to this point. Hopefully humans can reverse the trend of what has already been done. Have a great day.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on August 02, 2012:

Hi Christy. I was surprised to learn about their lack of a vocal box also. Pretty amazing. Hopefully all of the efforts by conservationists prevent the California Condor from going extinct. Thanks for stopping by and the vote & share.

whonunuwho from United States on August 02, 2012:

Interesting hub and well done. I am an advocate for protection of all wildlife and especially the birds in our echo system. I also paint birds of all kinds and write as much as I can. Thanks for sharing and telling the world about the endangerment of our wild birds.

Christy Birmingham from British Columbia, Canada on August 02, 2012:

What interesting facts. No voice box.. that would be so frustrating! LOL. I did not know it is going extinct so I am glad you shared this valuable information. I vote up and sharing too.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on August 01, 2012:

Hi Linda. Thank you for stopping by to learn about the California Condor. I plan to keep the series going so look for more. Thanks again and have a great day.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on August 01, 2012:

Hi silvers-Jain8. Glad you enjoyed the California Condor. It would be a tragedy for this majestic bird to become extinct. Thank you for reading and commenting. Have a great day.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on August 01, 2012:

Hi TT. Thank you for the nice comments and appreciate the VUM. The Condor needs all the PR they can get to help them continue to recover.

As always I appreciate your support. Have a great day.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on August 01, 2012:

Hi Film Fanatic. Welcome to hubPages. Glad you enjoyed the hub. Have a great day.

Linda Shanabrook on August 01, 2012:

Excellent article. I thoroughly enjoyed he information and look forward to more. Thank you.

Terrye Toombs from Somewhere between Heaven and Hell without a road map. on August 01, 2012:

BD, I just love this series on the Birds of Prey and this one on the California Condor is just as brilliant as all the rest of them. VUM! :)

Silvers-Jain8 from MA on July 31, 2012:

This was very well organized and I learned much just from this hub alone.

Very nice job. I have a new appreciation for the California Condor.

Film Fanatic 603 on July 31, 2012:

Very informative hub. You managed to mention every possible fact about the California Condor that I would want to know. Your use of photos was perfect and really added to the hub. Looking forward to reading more of your hubs.

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