- Class: Aves (Birds)
- Order: Falconiformes
- Family: Cathartidae
- Genus: Gymnogyps
- Species: californianus
The magnificent thunderbird. California condors are one of the largest flying birds. They are known for their enormous black wings, extraordinary eyesight, and an inquisitive and engaging intelligence. At one time there were thousands of California condors across the western United States and into Mexico. Fossil records indicate that these birds once inhabited present-day Florida and New York as well. Indigenous tribes in North America have great respect for the condor and see it as a symbol of power. Some call it the thunderbird because they believe the bird brings thunder to the skies with the beating of its huge wings. It can be distinguished in flight from other vultures by the large, triangular white patch under each wing.
When in flight, California condors are a sight to behold. That’s when their impressive wings are shown in all their glory revealing that distinctive white patch. The structure of condor wings and the placement of the feathers allow these large birds to soar. Condors catch thermal air currents that rise up as the sun heats the ground, and with those huge wings they can stay aloft for hours, soaring through the skies as they scan the fields below. They can reach flying speeds of up to 55 miles per hour (88 kilometers per hour), and they can fly to altitudes of 15,000 feet (4,600 meters).
Condors are neat! Some people think of vultures as "dirty,” but California condors are pretty tidy birds. After eating, they clean their head and neck by rubbing them on grass, rocks, or branches. Condors also bathe frequently and spend hours smoothing and drying their feathers. They even have a very hardy and effective immune system, so they don’t get sick from any of the bacteria they may come in contact with when feeding on decaying wildlife.
Bald is beautiful. Adult California condors have a distinctive pink head and neck that is bare of feathers. They may not be the prettiest birds you’ve ever seen, but that bare head is perfectly designed to keep rotting food from sticking to it as the birds eat. The skin on an adult condor’s head can also express some emotions. It turns a deep red-pink during courtship or when the birds are excited or alarmed. The adults also have a throat sack that they can puff out during courtship displays. Male and female condors may look the same to us, but the birds know the difference!
HABITAT AND DIET
Cliffhanger lifestyle. Condors prefer nest sites high on cliff ledges or cave openings with sand on the bottom. Holes in very large trees, like sequoias or redwoods, also make for great condor nest sites, although no nest itself is constructed for the egg and the condor pair doesn't add any nesting material.
Vulture culture. California condors are vultures. Like all vultures, they are carrion feeders, not predators. They eat anything that is already dead, ranging in size from mice to beached whales. Condors do not have talons like hawks or eagles do; instead, their nails are more like blunt claws. They also do not have a toe that faces backward (opposing), so they cannot grasp or carry prey with their feet. Condors prefer to eat large, dead wildlife like deer, cattle, and sheep, but they also eat rodents, rabbits, and even fish. Unlike turkey vultures, condors don’t have a good sense of smell, so they find their food mostly by their keen eyesight. These large birds gorge themselves on 2 to 3 pounds (1 to 1.36 kilograms) of food at a time and can then go without food for several days until they find another carcass. Like other scavengers, condors are part of nature’s cleanup crew, and they are an important part of the ecosystem. Without them, things could get pretty messy!
When a condor finds a food source, it often cases out the situation for days, safely perched on a hillside watching the carcass, or it flies in a circle for a long time before landing. Eventually, the condor flies down to the feeding site to dig in. Other condors soon follow, with two or more birds often grasping the same piece of meat, rocking back and forth and using each other’s weight to rip it apart.
At the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, the adult condors eat either rabbits, rats, beef spleens (melts), trout, or a ground meat specifically made for carnivores four days a week. They are not given the same items every time, as they would encounter different types of food in the wilderness. Condors don’t eat every day, so the condors at the Safari Park have “fast” days, where they don’t eat either. This gives them a chance to digest what they’ve already eaten.
Condor etiquette. California condors have a complex social system. They are monogamous and, once established, generally pair for life. However, if a pair is unsuccessful, each bird may seek out a new mate. Condors, like other vultures, are social birds that share food and spend time resting near one another. They use a variety of body postures to communicate with one another to maintain social hierarchies. Condors don’t have a true voice box or syrinx like other birds, but they can make crude, primitive vocalizations. Adults may grunt, wheeze, or hiss. Chicks can make a high-pitched, scraping squawk, usually when begging or when out from under the parents for too long.
The adult female lays a single whitish or pale green-blue egg directly on the substrate of dirt, pebbles, or woodchips between January and March. Both parents incubate the egg and care for the chick, and they may only raise one chick every other year. If that egg is lost (predation, accident, etc.), the female may lay a replacement egg approximately a month later. Although adult condors have no predators (other than humans), eggs and chicks may be attacked in the nest by ravens or golden eagles.
Pipping forth. Breaking out of the egg isn’t easy for a condor chick. It uses a sharp point on its beak called an egg tooth to crack through the shell, but it can still take many hours, or even days, for the chick to completely break free. The chick hatches with bare skin on its head, neck, belly, and underwings. Both parents brood the chick, keeping it warm after hatch. They may squabble with each other for brooding time, but they soon settle into a routine, and the nest exchanges become much calmer.
After about a day, the chick can hold its head steady, and the parents then start providing food. Condor parents carry food to their young by storing it in a food storage area in their throat called a crop. The parents regurgitate this meat and feed it to their chick until it learns to pick up food itself.
At the end of the condor chick’s first week of life, it weighs around 10.5 ounces (300 grams). It is getting much stronger but is not venturing around the nest very much yet. Coordination is improving, and it starts to interact with the parents: nibbling, preening, and nuzzling. When it’s about eight weeks old, the chick starts to wander outside of its nest area.
By five or six months of age, the youngster is ready to practice flying. It learns the fine points of dining by observing its parents and peers. One of our researchers says condors act much like human teenagers—continuously jostling and squabbling for rank, resources, and respect. A chick may stay with its parents for up to two years but does not attain its adult plumage until it is five to six years old.
AT THE ZOO
Condor history. The San Diego Zoo received its first California condor in 1929. It was donated by a couple who had discovered it with a damaged wing in Ventura, California. The condor’s wing had to be amputated, but it remained an active and healthy bird for over 10 years.
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance was given permission by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and California Department of Fish and Game to begin the first zoological propagation program for California condors when there were only 22 of the birds left in the world and special “condor-minium” with six large, free-flight aviaries was built at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. In 1982, the first California condor was brought into a zoo as part of the recovery program. Named Xolxol, he had been neglected by his parents because they were still rearing a chick from the previous year. He was successfully raised at the Safari Park.
Important hatchlings. The practice of moving condor eggs from the wilderness into human care for artificial incubation began in 1983, when the first egg of a California condor was received at the San Diego Zoo. Sisquoc, the first California condor ever hatched in a zoo, emerged from his shell on March 30, 1983. News of his hatching triggered an outpouring of mail from all over the world. Congratulatory letters were sent by conservationists, zoos, governments, school classrooms, and many individuals, all wanting to help with the condor project. In 1987, the last California condor remaining in the wilderness, called AC9, was brought to the Park. With the bird now extinct in its native habitat, one half of the world's population lived at the Park. A new high point in condor conservation was reached when Molloko, the first condor bred in expert care, hatched on April 29, 1988. And in 1992, the first zoo-hatched condors were reintroduced into native California habitat in Los Angeles National Forest.
Sisquoc continues to make the news! He and his mate, Shatash, were featured on our new Condor Cam, raising their chick together. Viewers around the world were able to watch this experience pair hatch and care for their chick, Saticoy. We are proud to say we have had 165 California condor hatchings since Sisquoc's arrival so long ago.
See our condors. Although most of our condors live in their off-view "condor-minium" habitat at the Safari Park, guests can get up-close views of condors at the Park’s Condor Ridge and in the Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey. And in 2011, a webcam was installed at the Park’s condor-minium. This Condor Cam allows a peek into ongoing recovery efforts at our breeding facility. Join us as we monitor everything from egg hatchings to preparing adults for reintroduction into California, Arizona, and Baja California, Mexico.
Watch our California condors daily on Condor Cam!
Down to 22. The California condor population was almost wiped out by the destruction of habitat, poaching, and lead poisoning. In 1982, only 22 birds remained. San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance was given permission to begin the first managed propagation program for California condors. The program also involved the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Game, the National Audubon Society, and the Los Angeles Zoo.
Thanks to the conservation-breeding program, within 20 years the population of California condors grew to almost 200 birds. It took a variety of techniques developed by scientists and wildlife care specialists to do this. Eggs were removed from condor nests, encouraging the females to lay replacement eggs. The removed eggs were placed in incubators for hatching. To make the hand-raised condors feel like their parents were raising them, the newly hatched chicks were fed and cared for using adult look-alike condor puppets and placed with mentor condors to learn social skills. Taped sounds of adult condors were played to the chicks as well.
Reintroduction sites. In the early 1990s, condors hatched in human care were reintroduced into California. Today, condors are reintroduced at five different reintroduction sites. One site is in northern Arizona at the Vermilion Cliffs, just north of Grand Canyon National Park. Three sites are in California: the Ventana Wilderness in Big Sur, Pinnacles National Monument, and near the Sespe Condor Sanctuary in the Los Padres National Forest, north of Los Angeles. More than 50 California condors now join the population every year, and 12 to 15 chicks now hatch in their native habitat annually.
Along with our Mexican partners, Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, Instituto Nacional de Ecología, and COSTA SALVAJE, we have been managing a long-term program to restore the California condor to a fifth site in the Sierra San Pedro Martír Mountains of northern Baja California, Mexico, where it went extinct sometime in the mid-1950s, likely for the same reasons we nearly lost the condor in the United States: shooting, collisions with man-made objects, and lead poisoning. In 2012, we were delighted to see the first condor to successfully fledge in Baja California.
Continued threats. Appreciation and protection of the condors' habitat is crucial for their ongoing survival. This is not always an easy task. Their main threat these days comes from environmental toxins, predominantly lead. When they eat wildlife that have been shot, the condors end up accidentally consuming the bullet/shot as well. Since lead is a very soft metal, it can be digested and absorbed into the bloodstream, resulting in lead poisoning. Switching to lead-free ammunition can greatly aid the California condors' recovery. In fact, our pathologists have shown that lead poisoning is the only significant cause of mortality for adult condors, providing the scientific foundation for legislation to phase out lead ammunition in California.
Power-line collisions, indiscriminate shooting, museum and egg collecting have taken their toll over the years as well. Condors need strong and consistent winds to achieve their soaring flight and to move around their habitat with energetic efficiency while searching for the widely dispersed carcasses that comprise their diet. We use a number of techniques to monitor and protect the birds including radio telemetry, satellite GPS telemetry, and good-old binoculars and telescopes. We not only study where they go and what they do, but also how they get there. By positioning a dozen remote sensing weather stations throughout their range, we will eventually better understand how they make decisions of when and where to fly.
For example, sites for proposed wind-energy developments may pose a risk to condor populations because the strong winds that are attractive to condors are also attractive to companies planning to install wind turbines. Our work can help reduce the risk of condors being injured by turbines by ensuring that they are situated at a safe distance from the major condor travel routes identified by our study.
The good news! As of 2019, the world population of California condors is 518! Of those, 337 are flying in their natural habitat. It's quite a comeback story! Condors still need the watchful eye and careful protection of conservationists and all of us who want to see them survive into the future. But it is good to know that all the hard work done so far has enabled California condors to stay with us in the 21st century. As more condors transfer to natural foods and lead poisoning becomes better controlled, we should achieve full recovery of this bird over the next decade!
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