California condor

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
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A California condor photographed at Phoenix Zoo in Arizona.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

What is the California condor?

The California condor is the largest flying bird in North America. Its wings may stretch nearly 10 feet from tip to tip. When in flight, this huge bird glides on air currents to soar as high as a dizzying 15,000 feet.

Condors were sacred birds to the Native Americans who lived in the open spaces of the U.S. West. The captive breeding of this critically endangered species is one of the most well known efforts to revive an animal on the verge of extinction.

Habitat

Fossil records show that the birds once occupied an expansive range that extended as far east as Florida and New York. They now only live in a fraction of that range—perhaps because of the loss of the great prehistoric herds that formerly roamed the continent before Europeans arrived. Condors can now primarily be found in central southern California deserts, where they roost on rocky cliffs. There are also populations in Arizona, Utah, and Mexico.

Diet and behavior

Like other vultures, condors are scavengers that feast on the carcasses of large mammals, such as cattle and deer. When a big meal is available, the birds may gorge themselves so much that they must rest for several hours before flying again.

Condors may fly dozens of miles a day in search of food, but they spend most of their time preening, sunning, and grooming in their roost.

Threats to survival

California condors have been in decline about as long as European settlements began to spread across North America. These birds have been on the U.S. endangered species list since 1967 and were near extinction when their captive-breeding program began.

Lead poisoning was a major culprit: Condors were accidentally ingesting fragments of lead-based ammunition as they scavenged on carcasses of hunted animals. Condors also contend with the spread of pesticides, which thins their already-fragile egg shells, as well as illegal egg collection.

California condors also mature and reproduce slowly. They don't breed until they are between six and eight years old, and the female lays only one egg every two years. If that egg is removed, however, she will lay a second or a third.

Conservation

In 1980, conservation groups launched an all-out effort to pull the California condor back from the brink of extinction. Knowing that female condors are more likely to lay a second or third egg if the first is removed, scientists began collecting eggs for captive incubation. Some birds were also taken to zoos for captive breeding. When fewer than 10 condors were left in the wild, the decision was made to bring them all in for captive breeding. In 1987, when the last wild bird was brought into captivity, there were only 27 condors left in the world.

The captive breeding programs were remarkably successful. Through the efforts of many organizations and individuals, reintroduction of California condors began in 1992. By the end of the decade, the population had grown to 161 condors.

California condors remain critically endangered. Though numbers have risen to around 300 animals, populations are still low, and many birds continue to fall victim to accidental death. Powerlines are a particular hazard for condors, and they fare better in areas where human population density is low.

In 2013, California took steps to address the condor’s biggest threat by banning the use of lead ammunition. Conservationists are hopeful that the law, which went into full effect in 2019, will make a difference for the future of the California condor.