CALIFORNIA CONDOR } Gymnogyps californianus
FAMILY: Cathartidae

Gymno comes from the Greek word gymnast, meaning "naked," and refers to the condor's featherless head; gyps is Greek for "vulture."

DESCRIPTION: The largest flying land birds in North America, California condors weigh about 20 pounds and have wingspans around 9.5 feet. They have bare, orange heads and necks, grayish-black feathers, and blunt claws; a white bar is found on the upper surface of each wing, and a triangle-shaped white patch is visible on the underside of each wing when the bird is airborne.

HABITAT: For scavenging, condors need large areas of remote country. They prefer open grasslands and oak savannah foothills and live near mountains, canyons, or hillsides, roosting in tall trees or isolated cliffs and rocky outcrops. Eggs are laid in shallow caves and rocky crevices.

RANGE: Having once flown free throughout the western United States, most condors today are born in captivity and released in southern and central California, northern Arizona, southern Utah, and Baja California, Mexico.

MIGRATION: California condors are nonmigratory but will travel long distances to forage and can easily travel more than 100 miles in a day.

BREEDING: California condors don't reach sexual maturity till they're six years old, and may not start breeding until they're seven or eight. They mate for life, generally producing one egg every two years between February and May.

LIFE CYCLE: It takes almost two months for an egg to incubate and hatch; chicks do not begin flying for five or six months afterward. Upon leaving the nest, young often remain dependent on their parents until the next breeding season.

FEEDING: Condors feed exclusively on carrion, favoring deer, cattle, sheep, and even marine mammals, but often settling for rodents, rabbits, or fish. Each bird needs about two pounds of food a day, but after gorging, condors can store energy as fat and go days without eating. Lacking a good sense of smell, the birds rely on their excellent eyesight to find their meals.

THREATS: California condors face many grave threats in the wild, including habitat loss, oil and gas drilling, shooting, and collision with power lines. The birds are constantly contracting lead poisoning from bullet-killed carcasses they scavenge and must be regularly recaptured for monitoring and lead-poisoning treatment.

POPULATION TREND: The California condor population rose from nine condors in the wild in 1985 to more than 169 free-flying condors at the outset of 2009.

OF SPECIAL INTEREST: While most people think of scavengers as dirty, condors are more fastidious about their hygiene than many treehuggers. After feeding, the birds clean their heads by rubbing them on grass, trees, or rocks; they bathe their whole bodies often and spend hours communally preening and drying their feathers.


Photo © David Clendenen, USFWS