Creature Feature: California Condor
California condor, Gymnogyps californianus
Although the common name suggests these giant birds are unique to California, much like their plant equivalent, redwood trees, they were found throughout North America 40,000 years ago.
By the time Lewis and Clark made their journey to the Pacific Northwest in 1804, the condor’s range had been reduced to the western American frontier and along the coast from Washington to Baja California, which may have been due to a decline in large mammals, their primary food. California condors were still found in the mountains of Baja California and Southern California in the 1930s, but hunting, environmental toxins and loss of habitat crashed the condor population till it become one of the most critically endangered animals in North America. California condors were one of the 78 species placed on the first endangered species list under the original Endangered Species Protection Act of 1966.
It was a sad but important day in April 1987 when the last wild California condor was captured to prevent extinction. The entire world population of the species had been reduced to 22-27 birds, housed in captive breeding facilities in southern California.
The captive breeding program began to pay off when California condors were reintroduced to mountains of southern and central California, Arizona, Utah, and Baja California. Today over 230 birds fly free over the North American landscape. In 2006, a Big Sur condor pair was found nesting in the burned-out cavity of a coast redwood tree; the first nesting in Northern California by free flying condors in over 100 years.
Condors are easily recognizable as they soar high above the landscape by their huge, broad-wings and short tails. Their feathers are mostly black, with characteristic white underwing feathers just behind the leading edge of the wings that can be seen from below as the bird soars. Adults have a narrow line of white feathers on the upper wings, and like some other carrion-loving birds, condors have a bold, bald head which can be reddish or yellowish and a hooked bill. Younger condors are not as vividly colored, having duskier feathers near their heads and backs, and more mottled plumage under the wings.
Condors are slow to reproduce and repopulate an area. Female condors lay only one egg per nesting attempt, and they don’t necessarily nest every year. The young condor is dependent on their parents for more than 12 months. It will be 6-8 years for the youngster to reach maturity and be ready for reproduction.
Massive wings allow condors to soar slowly and stably. They average about 30 mph in flight but can reach over 40 mph. Condors are carrion-feeders, scavenging dead animals. Inland condor populations prefer carcasses of large mammals such as deer, elk, antelope, and buffalo. The meals of coastal condors include significant amounts of marine mammals such as sea lions, seals and whales that wash up on coastal shores in addition to animals such as deer and elk.
Breeding, monitoring and recapture efforts (to test for lead) are necessary for now. Birds are still impacted by lead from carcasses left behind by hunters, though in 2013 California passed a law prohibiting the use of lead ammunition. The ban on lead will eventually lead to a decrease in lead poisoning from eating contaminated carrion.
Coastal populations are also effected by toxins such as persistent DDT and PCBs, stored in the fatty tissue and blubber of marine mammals, especially in migratory marine mammals that travel to Southern and Baja California. Fortunately, today with Endangered Species designation and public education, few birds are shot by hunters as they once were.
The return of the condor is a slow but steady success story, showing that people can stop extinction if they work together. Currently the nearest locations to observe California Condors are Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park near Big Sur and Pinnacles National Park near Soledad.