California Condor

The California condor, a species of New World vultures, is the largest land bird in North America. Known for its enormous wings and extraordinary eyesight, the California condor can soar at great heights and spot animal carcasses when gliding in the sky. It is one of the rarest bird species since there are only 488 California condors living in the wild or captivity as of 2018. The Native Americans living in California has always considered the condor as a sacred bird that plays a significant role in many of their traditional myths.

California Condor Scientific Classification

Animalia
Chordata
Aves
Cathartiformes
Cathartidae
Gymnogyps
Gymnogyps californianus

Table Of Content

Scientific Classification

California Condor

Animalia
Chordata
Aves
Cathartiformes
Cathartidae
Gymnogyps
Gymnogyps californianus

Physical Description and Appearance

Size: Their overall length varies between 43 and 55 inches (3.5 and 4.5 feet)

Wingspan: The wings are large and broad with long finger-like structures; their wingspan ranges from 98 to 120 inches (8.2 to 10 feet)

Weight: Their average body mass ranges between 8 and 9 kg (18 and 20 lb), but they could weigh up to 14 kg (31 lb)

California Condor

Color: They have a uniform black body, with triangular white patches on the underside of their wings, an ivory-colored bill, brownish-red eyes, extra black feathers at the base of the neck, gray legs, and yellowish or reddish-orange head and neck.

Body: Their body is conspicuously bulky, the tail is broad and short, and the head looks small when they are in flight

Toes: The middle toe is elongated while the hind toe is developed to some extent

Distribution

The present population of California condors is found in northern Arizona (including the region around Grand Canyon), coastal mountainous regions of central as well as southern California, northern Baja California, and southern Utah (comprising the Zion National Park).

What Kind of Habitats do California Condors live in

These magnificent condors inhabit the coniferous forests, oak savanna, and rocky shrublands. These birds are typically found on large trees or near cliffs where they build their nests. Two sanctuaries – the Sespe Condor Sanctuary and the Sisquoc Condor Sanctuary have been specifically dedicated to this species.

California Condor Habitat
California Condor Size

Lifespan

California condors can live for up to 45-80 years, with an average lifespan of about 60 years. This long lifespan is attributed to the fact that a condor has very few natural enemies other than humans.

What do They Eat

Being scavengers, California condors consume carrion. They prefer feasting on large, terrestrial animal carcasses like goats, deer, donkeys, horses, sheep, cougars, cattle, or bears. They may also eat small mammalian carcasses, including coyotes and rabbits, as well as bodies of aquatic mammals like California sea lions and whales, or fish such as salmon.

Behavioral Characteristics

  • These condors are quite sociable at bathing sites, feeding sites, and roosts. They are overall tolerant of one another.
  • Although they are not migratory birds, they travel long distances (about 100 miles per day) in search of food and always return to the same roosting or nesting place.
  • The California condors do not produce any special vocalization or song other than grunting, growling, and hissing used for communicating with other condors in situations like group feeding and roosting.
  • When they are not caring for their offspring, they spend most of the time roosting and foraging for food.
  • They also spend a lot of time grooming, which involves careful preening of their plumage and keeping it well arranged. The condors clean their head and neck after feeding.
  • They are often observed near watering holes from which they use water to clean dust and food particles from their feathers.
Condor Portrait Bird
California Condor Picture

Adaptations

  • They have excellent eyesight that helps them to follow other scavengers and locate carrion while flying at great heights.
  • The absence of feathers on their heads is also a useful adaptation because it keeps rotting flesh and harmful bacteria from sticking to their head when they insert their heads into the intestine of a carcass.
  • Their large, sharp beaks are powerful enough to break the bones of goats, pigs, and other large animals. They can also pierce through the tough hide of cattle and horses and tear their flesh.
  • They lack a large sternum, which is the reason why they cannot anchor their large flight muscles, restricting them to being excellent gliders. Their large wings help them to soar at great heights and go for miles without flapping their wings.

Reproduction and Mating

California condors start looking for a mate after they become sexually mature at six years of age. To attract a female, the male bird performs courtship displays by spreading its wings and bobbing its head. A female then lowers its head to indicate that it has accepted the male as its breeding partner. The birds then form a monogamous pair, becoming mates for life.

The pair builds a nest on cliff clefts or in caves that are located near open spaces and roosting trees. A female condor lays a bluish-white egg between January and April, every alternate year. The egg is about 90-120 mm (3.5-4.7 in) long and approximately 67 mm (2.63 in) thick, with a weight of about 280 grams. It hatches after an incubation period of 53-60 days. Although the nestlings are ready to take their first flight after 5-6 months of age, they continue to forage and roost with their parent until they are two years old.

California Condor Chick
California Condor Wingspan

What do the Baby California Condors look like

Chicks emerge from their eggs with the eyes open and can take up to 14 days to completely leave the shell. The baby condors are covered with grayish down feathers until they become almost the same size as their parents.

Conservation Status

The population of condors radically declined during the 20th century because of habitat destruction, poaching, and lead poisoning. The US government approved a recovery and conservation project that initiated the capture of all the surviving wild condors. This process continued until 1987, with the total population recovered from the wild being 27. These individuals were bred in captivity at the Los Angeles Zoo and the San Diego Wild Animal Park. As the numbers started increasing, the condors were again sent back to the wild in 1991. Although its population has increased, the California condor is still a rare bird species. It has been listed as Critically Endangered species by the IUCN.

California Condor Feet
California Condor Image

Interesting Facts

  • California condors have a poorly-developed sense of smell. They keep track of other scavengers, such as smaller vultures and eagles, in order to spot animal corpses.
  • They can survive for up to 2 weeks without eating. Once they find the body of a dead animal, they gorge themselves on about 1-1.5 kg of meat at a time.
  • During the winter months, condors often raise their neck feathers in order to maintain body heat and keep themselves warm.
  • On hot summer days, condors urinate onto their legs to lower their body temperature. As the urine evaporates, it helps in cooling off blood circulating in their legs.
  • The condors had a diverse distribution range during the Pleistocene, approximately 40,000 years ago. They existed throughout North America, as giant animals roamed the continent and there was no shortage of food supply.
  • California condors can achieve speeds of up to 90 kph (56 mph) while flying.

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