The California Condor, Gymnogyps californianus (sometimes californiacus) is the largest North American terrestrial bird, with a maximum wingspan of 3 m or 9.8 feet. (-1-)

Taxonomy (classification)


The California condor is a magnificent scavenger, which nearly became extinct in the mid-twentieth century --- by 1985 its entire wild population was estimated at a mere nine birds --- but which has recovered dramatically following its declaration as an endangered species in 1967/70 and a captive breeding program undertaken by the San Diego Wild Animal Park and the Los Angeles Zoo, followed by controlled release into the wild at Big Sur, The Los Padres National Forest near Santa Barbara, and Vermilion Cliffs, Arizona.(2)

Appearance and Behaviour

An adult California condor weighs about 20 pounds. It has near-black plumage, with a long white patch underneath each wing, and its head (in common with other vultures) is bare and coloured gray, light blue, red, yellow, orange and pink, these shades varying with age and excitement.

There is little to distinguish males from females (3), though the former tend to be somewhat larger. The chicks are covered with whitish down, quickly replaced by a second gray down and, later, by darkening brown plumage.

The condor's beak is large and powerful, and its feet --- perhaps unusually --- have no ability either to grasp or to perch. It has no voice-box (syrinx), as do other bird species, but communicates with a combination of hisses, grunts, and body language. Condors appear to be highly intelligent and curious creatures by nature; in captivity they will, for instance, play with and even 'retrieve' thrown sticks.

Feeding and Flight

The condor is a scavenger of prey killed by predators or from natural causes. It prefers recently dead meat, of which it can eat 3-4 pounds at a time, holding this in a distensible crop (an extension of the oesophagus). From the Pleistocene era to the mid-19th century or so, bison, pronghorn and similar animals made up most of the condor's diet, together with beached marine animals. More recently, of course, it will have switched to dead domestic cattle, rodents, and deer (part of its decline has been attributed to lead poisoning from bullets and shot).

In search of food, an adult condor may, remarkably, make single flights of up to 100 miles, travel 150 miles in a day, and may reach a height of around 15,000 feet. It's a soaring bird, most of its flight skills being associated with the detection and use of thermals to gain altitude before gliding away laterally at speeds of up to 55 mph.

Habitat and Breeding

In the wild, California condor pairs nest in holes on crags or, occasionally, in the tops of very tall trees such as sequoias. They use no nesting material; the female lays a single egg upon whatever surface is already present (often, sand). Incubation takes around 55 days, and the single chick is cared for equally by both parents. Its flight feathers are developed after six months or so, but the adults may continue to feed it for more than a year while it learns flight and foraging skills.


(1) Among land-based birds, only the Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus) has a larger wingspan, at 11-12 feet. The record holder here is the sea-going Black-footed Albatross, at a massive six and a half metres or 21 feet.

(2) So we do get it right, sometimes.

(3) To us, that is. I don't suppose condors have much difficulty telling girls from boys, which suggests that it's long past time we stopped considering the world solely in terms of our own perceptions and preoccupations.

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