The California condor is North America’s largest bird, and once dominated skies in the west. It is black with white patches under its wings, and its bald head has very few feathers. Its head color ranges from reddish purple to white, and its bareness is a hygienic adaptation to eating dead and rotting meat, sticking its head inside the carcasses to feed. Such scavengers are a vital part of the natural ecosystem, acting as nature’s cleaning crew.
The California condor used to live throughout the western U.S. from Mexico to Canada, with several populations as far to the east as Florida and New York. The current range includes the southern coastal ranges of California from Big Sur to Ventura County, through the Transverse Range to the east and the southern Sierra Nevada, as well as northern Baja California and Arizona’s Grand Canyon ecoregion. These birds live in forested rocky regions, such as canyons, gorges and mountains.
Habits and lifestyle
This species does not flock but they do seem to have some social structure. They do not migrate and they cover a large territory when seeking food, before returning to the same roosting or nesting place. The only noises they can make are grunting, growling and hissing sounds directed at other condors, when in social situations such as group roosting and feeding. If not caring for young, California condors spend most of their time foraging and roosting. They spend more time roosting than flying, mostly engaged in preening or sunning, the latter usually done first thing each day, warming up when the sun rises. California condors also take much time over grooming: their plumage is kept well-arranged and is carefully preened. They clean their bare head and neck after feeding. They bathe at watering holes, cleaning dust and food from their feathers.
Diet and nutrition
California condors are monogamous and pairs stay together for life. They nest in crevices or caves in cliffs, often close to open sites for ease of landing. They do not nest in colonies and breed only once every two years. Females lay a single egg, between February and May. Both parents incubate, for 55-60 days, sharing all nesting duties. Chicks are first covered in white down have a pink or yellow bare head. The second down covers the head as well, and is gray. Condors fledge 6 months after hatching, though depend on their parents for food for several months after fledging. They gain adult plumage by 5-6 years old, reaching reproductive maturity when 8 years old.
Despite being legally protected since 1900, the decline in the 20th century of California condors was the result of human induced pressures like egg collecting, trapping, shooting, and lead poisoning from the ingestion of carcasses that had been killed with lead shot. Lead poisoning unfortunately still occurs regularly and is the greatest threat to the condor; other threats currently include collisions into power lines, shooting, and accidental as well as deliberate poisoning.
The Defenders of Wildlife resource states that there are about 435 California condors in existence today, about 237 living wild in Arizona, California, and Baja California, Mexico. According to the IUCN Red List, the total population size of the California condor is 231 individuals in the wild, including 44 mature individuals. Overall, currently this species is classified as Critically Endangered (CR), but its numbers today are increasing.
Fun facts for kids
- California condors have great soaring and flying ability; they can soar without flapping for over an hour, covering sometimes 100 miles during a day while foraging.
- A California condor chick can take up to a week to hatch.
- California condors lay only one egg per year, which is the lowest reproductive rate for any bird species.
- The skin on this species’ head and neck can change noticeably as a response to its emotional state. This helps condors communicate.
- California condors dominate the other scavengers at a carcass, except for when a Golden eagle is present. The condor weighs twice as much as the eagle, but the eagle has superior talons.
- Condors are able to survive for 1-2 weeks without feeding. When they do find a carcass, they will eat as much as they can, storing in their crop (part of the esophagus) as much as 3 pounds of meat before leaving the scene.
- Condors can raise their neck feathers in cold weather to keep warm.
- Young can take months to perfect their flight and landings. Young may experience “crash” landings four months after first flying.