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Birds of Prey: The California Condor

Updated on March 12, 2017
California Condor in flight in Zion National Park
California Condor in flight in Zion National Park | Source

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 the highly publicized captive breeding program that will hopefully keep this majestic bird from becoming extinct.

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 nine to ten feet from wingtip to wingtip. A full grown large adult male can weigh upwards of 30 pounds but they weigh on 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 and with their featherless head and neck their look is certainly more vulture like than that of a swift and might raptor.

An adult California Condor is 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 head and neck. The skin color on their head can range from yellow to pink to a bright orange and is capable of changing color depending on their emotional state. Their beak is powerful and very sharp, as it must be capable of cutting through animal hide when feeding. With no distinctive trademark call, their vocalization is limited to grunting and hissing.

California Condor - Grand Canyon, Arizona
California Condor - Grand Canyon, Arizona | Source
The California Condor
The California Condor | Source

Range & 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 an area with high cliffs or very large trees. They will use rocky crevices or caves as nesting sites although nests have been discovered in the cavity of large sequoia trees along the coast of California.

Group of Condors feeding on a carcass.
Group of Condors feeding on a carcass. | Source

Diet

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

As the condor does not have a sense of smell they rely of their exceptional eyesight to spot a carcass. The condor’s territory is 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 the Golden Eagle, which is certainly willing to fight a condor over a carcass. Because they eat intermittently the condor will normally gorge themselves when feeding and then go a few days to over a week before eating again.

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 the pair will produce one egg every other year. The egg is usually laid in the February to April time frame and will be incubated by both parents. The incubation period will last about eight weeks. The young condors will remain in the nest area for many months tended to by the parents and will fly after five or six months have passed. They will 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 with its 30-day old chick in a cave nest near Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge, California, USA.
An adult California Condor with its 30-day old chick in a cave nest near Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge, California, USA. | Source

Behavior

Despite its large size the California Condor is remarkably graceful in flight. They are more glider than flapper and once at elevation can glide for miles without flapping their wings. Condors have been known to fly along 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

California Condor soaring over the Grand Canyon.
California Condor soaring over the Grand Canyon. | Source
Condor puppet feeding a condor chick
Condor puppet feeding a condor chick | Source

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 1980’s there only a handful of birds remaining in the wild.

In 1987 the United States government created a conservation plan that called for capturing the last remaining twenty two 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 twenty two birds back in 1987 have led to over 425 known condors today at last count with more than half of them living in the wild.

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 and they soon started 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 biologist used condor “puppets” to raise the other chick. This basically doubled the egg production and gave the condor captive recovery program a major boost.

Beautiful photo of the California Condor in flight
Beautiful photo of the California Condor in flight | Source

Fun Facts

  • Unlike other Birds of Prey the Condor does 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.
  • The bald head of the Condor was perfectly designed by nature to help keep food from sticking to their heads as they feed.
  • The condor has no voice box which is why they can only grunt and hiss.
  • California Condors are extremely social birds and they 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 will change from pink to red.
  • To keep itself cool the California Condor will urinate on its own legs.
  • Despite its reputation as being somewhat “dirty”, the California Condor is 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 live up to 60 years in the wild.

© 2012 Bill De Giulio

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    • bdegiulio profile image
      Author

      Bill De Giulio 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      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.

    • Au fait profile image

      C E Clark 4 years ago from North Texas

      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!

    • bdegiulio profile image
      Author

      Bill De Giulio 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      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 profile image

      SweetbeariesArt 4 years ago from California

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

    • bdegiulio profile image
      Author

      Bill De Giulio 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      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 profile image

      Movie Master 4 years ago from United Kingdom

      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!

    • bdegiulio profile image
      Author

      Bill De Giulio 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      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.

    • bdegiulio profile image
      Author

      Bill De Giulio 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      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 profile image

      whonunuwho 4 years ago from United States

      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.

    • ChristyWrites profile image

      Christy Birmingham 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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.

    • bdegiulio profile image
      Author

      Bill De Giulio 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      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.

    • bdegiulio profile image
      Author

      Bill De Giulio 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      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.

    • bdegiulio profile image
      Author

      Bill De Giulio 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      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.

    • bdegiulio profile image
      Author

      Bill De Giulio 4 years ago from Massachusetts

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

    • Brook Health Care profile image

      Linda Shanabrook 4 years ago

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

    • TToombs08 profile image

      Terrye Toombs 4 years ago from Somewhere between Heaven and Hell without a road map.

      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 profile image

      Silvers-Jain8 4 years ago from MA

      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 profile image

      Film Fanatic 603 4 years ago

      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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