NAME: California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus)
WEIGHT: 20 to 24 pounds
WINGSPAN: Up to 9.5 feet (3 meters)
BODY LENGTH: 46 to 55 inches
VOICE: None, but may grunt or wheeze
NEST SITE: Usually a cave in a cliff or a crevice among boulders on a steep slope.
INCUBATION PERIOD: About 56 days for egg to hatch.
FOOD SUPPLY: Historically, carcasses of bison, elk or deer in inland areas and seals and beached whales along coasts. With the loss of wild game and the introduction of cattle and sheep, the condor changed to feeding on carcasses of domestic animals. Has ability to travel 150 miles a day in search of food.
RANGE: Occurred historically from British Columbia south to northern Baja California and in other parts of southwestern United States.
POPULATION: There are currently 164 California Condors in the world -- 53 in the wild in California and Arizona and 111 in captive breeding facilities (World Center for Birds of Prey, Zoological Society of San Diego, and Los Angeles Zoo).
REPRODUCTION: Usually one egg every other year in the wild. Up to three eggs per year in captivity.
CAUSE OF DECLINE: Shooting, poisoning, and loss of food supply and habitat.
The goal of the California Condor Recovery Plan is to establish two geographically separate populations, one in California and the other in Arizona, each with 150 birds and at least 15 breeding pairs. Eleven of the sixteen California condors currently inthe wild in Southern California should be capable of breeding this year.
Archaeological evidence indicates that condors have been revered by western Native Americans for thousands of years and played a major role in their legends and rituals. Condors were considered sacred and capable of providing communication with the supernatural world as well as supernatural powers.
In more recent times, the California condor has become the subject of an intense and sometimes controversial effort to save the species from extinction. Faced with rapidly declining numbers, scientists began collecting wild-laid eggs and capturing free-flying birds to breed them in captivity with the goal of eventually restoring the condor to its rightful place in the California skies.
California condors are the largest birds in North America. They may weigh up to 25 pounds and have wingspans of 9 1/2 feet. California condors have bare heads and necks, dull gray-black feathers, and blunt claws. They have a triangle-shaped patch of white, visible only when airborne, that adorns the underside of their wings.
California condors can soar on warm thermal updrafts for hours, reaching speeds of more than 55 miles per hour and altitudes of 15,000 feet.
Normally, California condors do not become sexually mature until the age of 6 and may not start breeding until age 7 or 8. They nest in caves or clefts on cliffs that usually have nearby trees for roosting and a clear approach for easy take-offs and landings. Typically, an adult pair lays one egg every other year, with the fledgling being dependent upon its parents through the next breeding season.
Like all vultures, condors are carrion-eaters. They prefer large dead animals like deer, cattle, and sheep, but will also eat rodents and more rarely, fish. If a meal has been particularly big, they may have to spend hours on the ground or a low branch before they can take off again. Condors are fastidious birds -- after eating, they clean their heads and necks by rubbing them on grass, rocks, or tree branches. Condors also bathe frequently and spend hours preening and drying their feathers.
Condors were probably never very numerous in North America. The species once ranged along the entire Pacific Coast from British Columbia to Baja California. Fossils have been found as far east as Texas, Florida, and New York. More recently, however, they were confined to a horseshoe-shaped area north of Los Angeles.
For years, no one knew precisely how many California condors existed, although they have been considered to be a declining species since the 1890s. One estimate put their number at 100 in the early 1940s. Another indicated there were 50 to 60 in the early 1960s. By the late 1970s, the estimate had dropped to 25 to 30 birds.
Despite years of study, scientists have been unable to pinpoint the precise reason for the bird^s decline. Some factors include illegal collection of condors and their eggs, poisoning from substances put out by ranchers to eradicate livestock predators, poisoning from ingesting lead fragments from bullets embedded in animal carcasses the condors feed on, and collisions with structures such as power lines. In addition, the roads, cities, housing tracts, and weekend mountain retreats of modern civilization have replaced much of the open country condors need to find food. Their slow rate of reproduction and years spent reaching breeding maturity undoubtedly make the condor population as a whole more vulnerable to these threats.
Recognizing the California condor^s perilous state, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the bird as an endangered species in 1967 (under a law that preceded the Endangered Species Act of 1973), meaning it was considered in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. The Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Department of Fish and Game, and the National Audubon Society, among other government and private groups, began a joint effort in 1979 to study and preserve the bird.