The California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) is the largest bird in North America, and once dominated the western skies. Sadly, the species declined throughout much of the 20th century until only drastic measures could save it from extinction.
© Scott Frier / USFWS
The California condor is one of our nation's most magnificent birds, with wings spanning an amazing nine and half feet! It is black in color with white underwing patches and sports a bald head with very few feathers. The color of the head varies from white to reddish purple. The bare head is an adaptation for hygiene since they eat dead and rotting meat and must, for the most part, stick their heads into the carcasses to feed. As unappetizing as this may seem to us, scavengers like condors are vital to the natural ecosystem. They are nature’s cleaning crew.
Condors consume carrion (dead animal carcasses). The birds prefer the carcasses of large dead animals like deer, cattle, and sheep. However, they are also known to eat the carcasses of smaller animals like rodents and rabbits.
The California condor population steadily declined during the 20th century until there were only 22 known to exist in the world. The last of the free-flying condors were taken into captivity in 1987 in order to save the species from extinction. There were no California condors in the wild between 1988 and 1991, but reintroduction efforts began in early 1992 and continue today. As of May 2013, there are approximately 435 California condors in the world, about 237 of which are free-flying in California, Arizona and Baja California, Mexico.
Habitat & Range
Did You Know?
The condor featured on the 2005 California state quarter.
California condors live in rocky, forested regions including canyons, gorges and mountains. They historically ranged throughout the western U.S. from Canada to Mexico, with some populations as far east as Florida and New York. The species’ current range includes California’s southern coastal ranges from Big Sur to Ventura County, east through the Transverse Range and the southern Sierra Nevada, with other populations in northern Baja California and in the Grand Canyon ecoregion in Arizona.
Condors can soar to heights of 15,000 feet and may travel up to 150 miles a day in search of their next meal. They do not have a good sense of smell, so they find their food mostly by their keen eyesight. Like vultures and other scavengers, condors are part of nature’s cleaning crew. Things could get pretty messy without the services of these important animals in the ecosystem!
Did You Know?
The skin of the Condor's head and neck is capable of changing noticeably in response to emotional state - like a mood ring! This helps condors communicate.
California condors most often nest in caves or crevices in rock faces, but are also known to nest in tree cavities. Instead of having many young and gambling that a few will survive, condors produce very few young and provide an extensive amount of parental care. The chick learns to fly when they are about 6 months old but will stay with the parents for many more months.
Mating Season: Winter - Spring
Gestation: About 56 days for egg incubation
Clutch size: 1 egg