It is a large, black vulture with patches of white on the underside of the wings and a largely bald head with skin color ranging from yellowish to a bright red, depending on the bird's mood. It has the largest wingspan of any bird found in North America and is one of the heaviest. The condor is a scavenger and eats large amounts of carrion. It is one of the world's longest-living birds, with a lifespan of up to 50 years.
Condor numbers dramatically declined in the 19th century due to poaching, lead poisoning, and habitat destruction. Eventually, a conservation plan was put in place by the United States government that led to the capture of all the remaining wild condors in 1987. These 22 birds were bred at the San Diego Wild Animal Park and the Los Angeles Zoo. Numbers rose through captive breeding and, beginning in 1991, condors have been reintroduced into the wild. The project is the most expensive species conservation project ever undertaken in the United States. The California Condor is one of the world's rarest bird species. In August 2008, there were 332 condors known to be living, including 156 in the wild.
The exact taxonomic placement of the California Condor and the remaining six species of New World vultures remains unclear. Though both are similar in appearance and have similar ecological roles, the New World and Old World vultures evolved from different ancestors in different parts of the world. Just how different the two are is currently under debate, with some earlier authorities suggesting that the New World vultures are more closely related to storks. More recent authorities maintain their overall position in the order Falconiformes along with the Old World vultures or place them in their own order, Cathartiformes. The South American Classification Committee has removed the New World vultures from Ciconiiformes and instead placed them in Incertae sedis, but notes that a move to Falconiformes or Cathartiformes is possible.
Today's California Condor is the sole surviving member of Gymnogyps and has no accepted subspecies; although its range greatly contracted during the Holocene, the species always had a small and inbred population. However, there is a Late Pleistocene palaeosubspecies, Gymnogyps californianus amplus, which occurred over much of the bird's historical range – even extending into Florida – but was larger, having about the same weight as the Andean Condor. This bird also had a wider bill. As the climate changed during the last ice age, the entire population became smaller until it had evolved into the Gymnogyps californianus californianus of today.
As an adaptation for hygiene, the condor's head and neck have few feathers, which exposes the skin to the sterilizing effects of dehydration and solar ultraviolet light at high altitudes. The skin of the head and neck is capable of flushing noticeably in response to emotional state, a capability that can serve as communication between individuals. The skin color varies from yellowish to a glowing reddish-orange.
Contrary to the usual rule among true birds of prey, the female is smaller than the male. Overall length can range from 117–135 centimeters (46–53 in) and the wingspan averages around 2.77 meters (9.1 ft). Their weight can range from 7–14 kilograms (15–31 lb), with estimations of average weight ranging from 8–9 kilograms (18–20 lb). Most measurements are from birds raised in captivity, so determining if there are any major differences in measurements between wild and captive condors is difficult.
California Condors have the largest wingspan of any North American bird. They are surpassed in both body length and weight only by the Trumpeter Swan and the introduced Mute Swan. The American White Pelican and Whooping Crane also have longer bodies than the condor. Condors are so large that they can be mistaken for a small, distant airplane, which possibly occurs more often than they are mistaken for other species of bird.
The middle toe of the California Condor's foot is greatly elongated, and the hind one is only slightly developed. The talons of all the toes are straight and blunt, and are thus more adapted to walking than gripping. This is more similar to their supposed relatives the storks than to birds of prey and Old World vultures, which use their feet as weapons or organs of prehension.
Five hundred years ago, the California Condor roamed across the American Southwest and West Coast. However, due to their decline in numbers, the last wild bird was taken into captivity for the breeding program in 1987. Recently, captive-bred condors have been released in southern California, in Baja California, and at the Grand Canyon. There are two sanctuaries dedicated to this bird, the Sisquoc Condor Sanctuary in the San Rafael Wilderness and the Sespe Condor Sanctuary in the Los Padres National Forest. These areas were chosen because of their prime condor nesting habitat.
The condors live in rocky scrubland, coniferous forests, and oak savannas. They are often found near cliffs or large trees, which they use as nesting sites. Individual birds have a huge range and have been known to travel up to 250 kilometers (150 mi) in search of carrion.
When in flight, the movements of the condor are remarkably graceful. The lack of a large sternum to anchor their correspondingly large flight muscles restricts them to being primarily soarers. The birds flap their wings when taking off from the ground, but after attaining a moderate elevation they largely glide, sometimes going for miles without a single flap of their wings. They have been known to fly up to speeds of 90 km/h (55 mph) and as high as 4,600 meters (15,000 ft). They prefer to roost on high perches from which they can launch without any major wing-flapping effort. Often, these birds are seen soaring near rock cliffs, using thermals to aid them in keeping aloft.
The California Condor has a long life span, reaching up to 50 years. If it survives to adulthood, the condor has few natural threats other than humans. Their vocal display is limited to grunts and hisses. Condors bathe frequently and can spend hours a day preening their feathers. Condors also perform urohydrosis, or defecate on their legs, to reduce their body temperature. There is a well-developed social structure within large groups of condors, with competition to determine a pecking order decided by body language, competitive play behavior, and a variety of hisses and grunts. This social hierarchy is displayed especially when the birds feed, with the dominant birds eating before the younger ones.
Condors begin to look for a mate when they reach sexual maturity at the age of six. To attract a prospective mate, the male condor performs a display. In the display, the male turns his head red and puffs out his neck feathers. He then spreads his wings and slowly approaches the female. If the female lowers her head to accept the male, the condors become mates for life. The pair makes a simple nest in caves or on cliff clefts, especially ones with nearby roosting trees and open spaces for landing. A mated female lays one bluish-white egg every other February or March. The egg weighs about 280 grams (10 oz) and measures from 90–120 millimeters (3½–4¾ in) in length and about 67 millimeters (2⅝ in) in width. If the chick or egg is lost or removed, the parents "double clutch", or lay another egg to take the lost one's place. Researchers and breeders take advantage of this behavior to double the reproductive rate by taking the first egg away for hand-rearing; this induces the parents to lay a second egg, which the condors are sometimes allowed to raise.
The eggs hatch after 53 to 60 days of incubation by both parents. Chicks are born with their eyes open and sometimes can take up to a week to hatch from their egg. The young are covered with a grayish down until they are almost as large as their parents. They are able to fly after five to six months, but continue to roost and hunt with their parents until they turn two, at which point they are displaced by a new clutch.
At the time of human settlement of the Americas, the California Condor was widespread across North America. However, climate changes associated with the end of the last ice age and the extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna led to a subsequent reduction in range and population. Prehistorically, California Condors are known from Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas.
In modern times, a wide variety of causes have contributed to the condor's decline. Its exacting mating habits and resulting low birth rate, combined with a late age of sexual maturity, make the bird vulnerable to loss of population. Significant damage to the condor population is also attributed to poaching, especially for museum specimens, lead poisoning (from eating animals containing lead shot), DDT poisoning, electric power lines, egg collecting, and habitat destruction. During the California Gold Rush, some condors were even kept as pets.
In addition to this, cattle ranchers who observed condors feeding on the dead young of their cattle assumed that the birds killed the cattle. This fallacy led to the condor's extinction in some parts of the western United States. This belief was so deeply ingrained that the reintroduction of condors to the Grand Canyon was challenged by some cattle ranchers, who mistakenly believed that the bird hunted calves and lambs.
As the condor's population continued to decline, discussion began about starting a captive breeding program for the birds. Opponents to this plan argued that the condors had the right to freedom, that capturing all of the condors would change the species' habits forever, and that the cost was too great. However, the project received the approval of the United States Government, and the capture of the remaining wild condors was completed on Easter Sunday 1987, when AC-9, the last wild condor, was captured. There were only 22 condors in existence, all in captivity. The captive breeding program, led by the San Diego Wild Animal Park and Los Angeles Zoo, got off to a slow start due to the condor's mating habits. However, utilizing the bird's ability to double clutch, biologists began removing the first egg from the nest and raising it with puppets, allowing the parents to lay another egg.
As the number of condors grew, attention began to focus on releasing some back into the wild. In 1988, the US Fish and Wildlife Service began a reintroduction experiment involving the release of captive Andean Condors into the wild in California. Only females were released, to eliminate the possibility of accidentally introducing a South American species into the United States. The experiment was a success, and all the Andean Condors were recaptured and re-released in South America. California Condors were released in 1991 and 1992 in California, and again in 1996 in Arizona near the Grand Canyon. Though the birth rate remains low in the wild, their numbers are increasing steadily through regular releases of captive-reared adolescents.
Unanticipated deaths among these populations occurred due to contact with Golden Eagles, power lines, and other factors such as lead poisoning. Since 1994, captive-bred California Condors have been trained to avoid power lines and people. Since the implementation of this aversion conditioning program, the number of condor deaths due to power lines has greatly decreased. Lead poisoning due to fragmented lead bullets in large game waste is a particularly big problem for condors due to their extremely strong digestive juices; this lead waste is not as much of a problem for other avian scavengers such as the Turkey Vulture and Common Raven. This problem has been addressed in California by the Ridley-Tree Condor Preservation Act, a bill that went into effect July 1, 2008 that requires that hunters use non-lead bullets when hunting in the condor's range.
The California Condor conservation project is also the most expensive species conservation project in United States history, costing over $35 million, including $20 million in federal and state funding, since World War II. However, nesting milestones have been recently reached by the reintroduced condors. In 2003, the first nestling fledged in the wild since 1981. In March 2006, a pair of California Condors attempted to nest in a hollow tree near Big Sur, California. This was the first time in more than 100 years in which a pair of California Condors had been seen nesting in Northern California. In early 2007, a California condor laid an egg in Mexico for the first time since at least the 1930s. The population of the condors has risen due to these wild and also captive nestings. As of August 2008 there are 332 individuals living, including 156 in the wild and the rest in the San Diego Wild Animal Park, the Los Angeles Zoo, the Oregon Zoo, or the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho.
Throughout its historic range, the California Condor has been a popular subject of mythology and an important symbol to Native Americans. Unusually, this bird takes on different roles in the storytelling of the different tribes.
The Wiyot tribe of California say that the condor recreated mankind after Above Old Man wiped humanity out with a flood. However, other tribes, like California's Mono, viewed the condor as a destroyer, not a creator. They say that Condor seized humans, cut off their heads, and drained their blood so that it would flood Ground Squirrel's home. Condor then seized Ground Squirrel after he fled, but Ground Squirrel managed to cut off Condor's head when Condor paused to take a drink of the blood. According to the Yokut tribe, the condor sometimes ate the moon, causing the lunar cycle, and his wings caused eclipses. The Chumash tribe of Southern California believed that the condor was once a white bird, but it turned black when it flew too close to a fire.
Condor bones have been found in Native American graves, as have condor feather headdresses. Cave paintings of condors have also been discovered. Some tribes ritually killed condors to make ceremonial clothing out of their feathers. Shamans then danced while wearing these to reach the upper and lower spiritual worlds. Whenever a shaman died, his clothes were said to be cursed, so new clothing had to be made for his successor. Some scientists, such as Noel Snyder, believe that this process of making ceremonial clothing helped contribute to the condor's decline. If so, this would be the only known species that was endangered by the California natives.