Learn about California Condors
Yurok Condor Restoration Program
Learn about California Condors
California condors, with a 9.5-foot (2.9 m) wingspan and a weight of approximately 22 pounds (10 kg), are the largest land bird in North America. California condors are thought to live for more than 60 years; however, a long history of excessive mortality has prevented us from knowing the lifespans of wild individuals.
Condors spend most of their time perching, preening, and sunning, usually in large trees and snags, rock outcrops, and cliff ledges. Condors are very social and spend much of their time roosting with conspecifics (i.e., other condors). They are known to return to the same roost sites, year after year.
Condors are obligate scavengers — organisms that feeds exclusively on carrion, or the remains of dead animals. With the availability of carrion being ephemeral and sparsely distributed, condors must be able to travel great distances to find it before it becomes inedible or is consumed by other scavengers. Condors are known to fly up to 150 miles (240 km) per day at a rate of up to 50 miles (80 km) per hour.
Condors often locate food by sight, either by identifying the food-resource directly or by observing the foraging behavior of other avian scavengers, such as turkey vultures, ravens, and eagles. Condors typically feed on the remains of large, terrestrial vertebrates, such as deer, elk, and cattle. Condors along the coast feed on marine mammals, such as whales, seals, and sea lions.
Adult California condor.
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Condors are soaring birds that typically flap their wings only during takeoff and landing. To fly, condors rely upon updrafts — columns of heated air, called thermals, and rising air produced by topographic features, called orographic lift.
Condor foraging often occurs in open areas, such as grasslands, oak-savanna foothills, mixed woodlands, and coastal zones. Condors often forage during the middle of the day, when soaring conditions are optimal.
Condors possess a specialized gastrointestinal microbiome which provides resistance to a variety of bacterial toxins, such as anthrax, botulism, and cholera. As they clean the landscape of carcasses, condors are also able to remove these toxins from
Juvenile condors have feathered heads. Only after condors become sexually mature, at about 6 years of age, do they attain full adult plumage and the mostly featherless head that is so iconic for the species. In fact, the genus Gymnogyps is derived from Greek and means naked vulture, referring to their bare heads and necks.
The size of condors compared to other large birds of
Condor breeding pairs are typically monogamous and often remain together for much of the year.
Condors nest primarily in existing cavities in cliffs or trees. Condors do not construct a nest, as many other birds do, and will not bring in any outside material for nest building. The extent to which a breeding pair will prepare a nest often involves little more than the manipulation of objects or substrate within the cavity to create a slight depression or a loose disk of debris where the egg is to be laid and incubated.
Condors exhibit one of longest breeding cycles among avian species. Condor egg laying typically occurs from late January through April, with clutches consisting of a single egg. Both adults share incubation duties, with shifts lasting from several hours to several days. The incubation period averages about two months; as such, wild condor chicks often hatch between April and June.
Juvenile California condor.
Chicks develop in their nests for approximately six months. The adult condors take turns brooding and feeding the chick. Once the chick has fledged and is capable in flight, it will follow the adults on foraging flights and to roost sites. These flights with their parents are when young condors are first exposed to conspecifics, wind patterns, flight techniques, foraging strategies, and important geographic locations. It may take a year for young condors to reliably find food on their own and become independent of their parents.
Natural History, Distribution, and Declines
Condor fossil records have been discovered in Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Florida, New York, and Mexico, indicating that the species was distributed across much of North America before the end of the Pleistocene, approximately 13,000 years before present.
At the time of Euro-American colonization in the western U.S., historical evidence indicates that California condors were widespread and locally abundant from southern British Columbia, Canada, to Baja California, Mexico.
A multitude of anthropogenic threats, including indiscriminate killing, secondary poisoning, habitat loss, lead poisoning, specimen collection of eggs and chicks, and reductions in food resources, contributed to significant condor population declines and range contractions, such that condors disappeared from the Pacific Northwest by the early 1900s, and from Baja California, Mexico, by the end of the 1930s.
By the mid-20th century, the population of California condors totaled fewer than 30 birds in a small region of southern California.
The California condor was one of the first species to be protected under the Endangered Species Act of 1966, and was listed as endangered by the federal government in March 1967. In 1973, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) formed a condor recovery team and, in 1975, produced the California Condor Recovery Plan — the first for any endangered species.
Intensive monitoring revealed the condor population in the 1970s and 1980s to be in rapid decline. In 1982, only 23 California condors survived worldwide. To prevent extinction, to safeguard the remaining individuals, and to maintain what genetic diversity remained, in 1985, USFWS and the California Fish and Game Commission decided to capture all remaining wild California condors and institute a captive breeding program.
The last wild condor was trapped in southern California in spring of 1987, joining a captive population of 26 other birds. At that point, the California condor was extinct in the wild.
Captive breeding was first achieved in 1988 and has since been substantial, with growth of the overall population from 27 to 86 birds from the years 1987–1994, and the production of 150 new birds from 1990–2002.
The success of the captive breeding and rearing program allowed for condors to be reintroduced to the wild. Releases of captive-reared condors have been ongoing in southern California since 1992, in Arizona since 1996, in central California since 1997, and in Baja California, Mexico, since 2002. Condor recovery and management is directed by the California Condor Recovery Program (CCRP) — a multi-entity coalition led by USFWS.
Although condors have successfully reproduced in the wild at all release sites, this recruitment has not yet yielded enough new individuals to offset mortality and achieve self-sustaining populations.
The 2020 Annual Population Status report from the CCRP listed the California condor population at 504 individuals, including 329 wild birds and 175 birds in captivity (USFWS 2020).
Estimated distribution of California condors in 1880.
California Condor Recovery Program release sites and approximate range of each respective population, circa 2012.
Knowledge of the factors which contributed to the decline of California condors is critical for the conservation and management of the species, particularly because many of those threats are still present.
Rideout et al. (2012) summarized all of the documented causes of mortality in free-ranging California condors from 1992 to 2009. During that period, condors experienced a 38% mortality rate. Of the 76 cases for which cause of death could be reliably determined, the ingestion of small pieces of plastic or metal contributed to 73% of deaths in the nestling age class, while lead toxicosis — a form of heavy metal poisoning — was the most frequent cause of mortality for both juvenile (26% of deaths) and adult condors (76%).
Rideout et al. concluded that the mortality factors most likely responsible for the decline in the historical condor population, including lead toxicosis, were of an anthropogenic origin.
Radiograph displaying metallic fragments from a .270 caliber bullet in the neck of a deer carcass.
Unless mitigated, it is believed that these same factors will continue to limit conservation of the species and the establishment of self-sustaining populations. Church et al. (2006) and Finkelstein et al. (2012) determined that the principal source of the lead to which condors are exposed is from lead-based ammunition fragments embedded within carcasses of animals on which they scavenge.
From 1992 through 2020, lead toxicosis is attributed to 50% (n = 107) of all condor mortalities for which a cause of death could be determined (USFWS 2021). During that period, an additional 106 condors went missing, meaning that the number of mortalities from lead toxicosis could actually be much greater.
In a review of condor population ecology, Finkelstein et al. (2012) concluded that without continued releases of captive-reared condors and clinical interventions for condors poisoned by lead, the wild population in California would decline and eventually become extinct. Finkelstein et al. also asserted that elimination of lead-related mortality would allow the condor population in California to grow, even in the absence of further reintroductions of captive-reared condors.
In October 2013, California Assembly Bill 711 was signed into law, requiring the use of non-lead ammunition when killing any wildlife with a firearm in California, including for both hunting and depredation. Pursuant to this law, the California Fish and Game Commission was required to adopt regulations that phased-in the statute’s requirements by 1 July 2019. Currently, no such law exists in neighboring states, including within the anticipated range for the northern California condor population.
Microtrash is also a principal condor mortality factor. Rideout et al. (2012) reported that the ingestion of small items of anthropogenic origin, such as bottle caps, broken glass, plastic, and metal (e.g., nuts, bolts, washers, spent ammunition cartridges) continues to impact condor populations as the leading cause of mortality in the nestling age class. Effects of microtrash ingestion include digestive tract impaction, evisceration, internal lesions, and death.
All of us can contribute to the recovery of California condors. Thank you for learning more about this fascinating species and for doing what you can to reduce some of the threats they face, promote their conservation, and help them to thrive in the wild.
Literature Cited and other Relevant Publications
Church, M.E., R. Gwiazda, R. W. Risebrough, K.J. Sorenson, C.P. Chamberlain, S. Farry, W. Heinrich, B.A. Rideout, and D.R. Smith. 2006. Ammunition is the Principal Source of Lead Accumulated by California Condors Re-Introduced to the Wild. Environmental Science and Technology, 40(19):6143–6150.
D’Elia, J., J. Brandt, L.J. Burnett, S.M. Haig, J. Hollenbeck, S. Kirkland, B.G. Marcot, A. Punzalan, C.J. West, T. Williams-Claussen, and R. Wolstenholme. 2019. Applying circuit theory and landscape linkage maps to reintroduction planning for California Condors. Plos one, 14(12), p.e0226491.
Finkelstein, M.E., D.F. Doak, D. George, J. Burnett, J. Brandt, M. Church, J. Grantham, and D.R. Smith. 2012. Lead Poisoning and the Deceptive Recovery of the Critically Endangered California Condor. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109:11449–11454.
Rideout, B., I. Stalis, R. Papendick, A. Pessier, B. Puschner, M. Finkelstein, D. Smith, M. Johnson, M. Mace, R. Stroud, J. Brandt, J. Burnett, C. Parish, J. Petterson, C. Witte, C. Stringfield, K. Orr, J. Zuba, M. Wallace, and J. Grantham. 2012. Patterns of Mortality in Free-Ranging California Condors (Gymnogyps californianus). Journal of Wildlife Diseases, 48(1):95–112.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). 2020. California Condor Recovery Program, 2020 Annual Population Status. US Fish and Wildlife Service, Pacific Southwest Region.
West, C.J., J.D. Wolfe, A. Wiegardt, and T. Williams-Claussen. 2017. Feasibility of California Condor recovery in northern California, USA: contaminants in surrogate Turkey vultures and Common Ravens. The Condor: Ornithological Applications, 119(4):720–731.
Learn more about California Condors
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Condor Recovery Program
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology