Birds of Prey: The California Condor
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
- 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.
Other articles on Birds of Prey:
- Birds of Prey - The Snowy Owl
Everything you need to know about the beautiful Snowy Owl. This amazing Bird of Prey is one of the largest owls in the world and certainly one of the most striking with its snowy white plumage.
- Birds of Prey - The Martial Eagle
A look at Africa's largest and most powerful eagle. The Martial Eagle is one of the largest Eagles in the world and this beautiful Bird of Prey is found only in sub-Saharan Africa.
- Birds of Prey - The Harpy Eagle
An introduction to the Harpy Eagle, one of the largest and most powerful birds in the world. Everything you need to know about this beautiful bird of prey that makes its home in the rain-forests of Central and South America.
- Birds of Prey - The Golden Eagle
Learn everything you need to know about the majestic Golden Eagle. Larger than the Bald Eagle, the Golden Eagle is much more widespread and is the largest Bird of Prey in North America.
- Birds of Prey - The Bald Eagle
The American Bald Eagle is the most majestic and revered of all Birds of Prey across North America. Honored and respected by Native Americans for centuries, this beautiful bird is perhaps the most famous of all Birds of Prey.
© 2012 Bill De Giulio