Length: 3.5 to 4.6 feet (1.1 to 1.4 meters)
Wingspan: 8.2 to 9.7 feet (2.5 to 2.95 meters)
Weight: 17 to 29 pounds (7.7 to 13 kilograms)
Life span: up to 60 years
Number of eggs laid: 1
Size of egg: on average 4.3 x 2.6 inches (109 x 66 millimeters); on average 9.4 ounces (267 grams)
Incubation: 54 to 68 days
Age of maturity: 5 to 6 years
Conservation status: critical risk
The first California condor released into Baja California, Mexico as part of the California Condor Recovery Program was seen flying in San Diego County on April 5, 2007!
California condors do not have vocal chords, so they only make hissing and grunting noises.
It can take up to a week for a condor chick to break out of its egg.
Condors do not have talons like hawks or eagles do. Their nails are more like blunt claws. They also do not have a toe that faces backwards (opposing) so they cannot grasp or carry prey with their feet.
Since they have few natural enemies other than humans, California condors are curious and bold.
The San Diego Zoo was the first facility in the world to hatch a California condor.
Birds: California Condor
Nature’s cleanup crew
California condors are vultures. Like all vultures, they feed on carrion. Condors prefer large dead animals like deer, cattle, and sheep, but they also eat rodents, rabbits, and even fish. They don’t have a good sense of smell like turkey vultures, so they find their food mostly by their keen eyesight. These large birds gorge themselves on 2 to 3 pounds (1 to 1.36 kilograms) of food at a time, and can then go without food for several days until they find another carcass. Like other scavengers, condors are part of nature’s cleanup crew, and they are an important part of the ecosystem. Without them, things could get pretty messy!
At the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, the adult condors are fed either rabbits, rats, beef spleens (melts), trout, or a ground meat product called carnivore diet four days a week. They are not given the same items every time. This encourages the birds to try different items. Wild condors don’t eat every day, so the condors at the Park have “fast” days, where they don’t get any food either. This gives them a chance to digest what they’ve already eaten, and is similar to what they would experience in the wild.
Condors are neat!
Some people think of vultures as "dirty,” but actually, California condors are pretty tidy. After eating, they clean their heads and necks by rubbing them on grass, rocks, or branches. Condors also bathe frequently and spend hours smoothing and drying their feathers. They even have a very hardy and effective immune system, so they don’t get sick from any of the bacteria they may come in contact with when feeding on decaying animals.
Bald and beautiful
Adult California condors have distinctive pink, bald heads. They may not be the prettiest birds you’ve ever seen, but those bald heads are perfectly designed to keep rotting food from sticking to them as they eat. The skin on the bare heads of adults can also express some emotions. It turns a deep red-pink during courtship or when the birds are excited or alarmed. The adults also have a throat sack that they can puff out during courtship displays.
A home in the cliffs
Crevices and caves in rocky cliffs make for great condor nest sites, although no nest itself is constructed for the egg. The adult female will lay a single whitish or pale green-blue egg between January and March. The chick hatches almost two months later with bare patches on its head, neck, belly, and underwing. At about eight weeks old the chick will start to wander outside of its nest area. By five or six months the youngster is ready to practice flying.
Impressive in flight
When they fly, California condors are a wonderful sight to behold. That’s when their impressive wings are shown in all their glory and when you can see the triangular patch of white flashing under each wing. The condors catch thermal air currents that rise up as the sun heats the ground, and with those huge wings they can stay aloft for hours, soaring through the skies as they scan the fields below. They can reach speeds of up to 55 miles per hour (88 kilometers per hour), and they can climb to altitudes of 15,000 feet (4,600 meters).
The magnificent thunderbird
California condors are one of the largest flying birds. At one time there were thousands of them in the wild, ranging across the western United States and into Mexico. Native American tribes have great respect for the condor and see it as a symbol of power. They call it the thunderbird because they believe it brings thunder to the skies with the beating of its huge wings.
Humans and condors
Destruction of habitat, poaching, and lead poisoning almost wiped out the California condor population. In 1982, only 22 birds remained in the wild. San Diego Zoo Global was given permission to begin the first captive propagation program for California condors. The program also involved the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Game, the National Audubon Society, and the Los Angeles Zoo.
Conservation at work
Thanks to the conservation-breeding program, within 20 years the population of California condors grew to almost 200 birds. It took a variety of techniques developed by scientists and bird keepers to do this. Eggs were removed from condor nests, encouraging the females to lay replacement eggs. This is called "double clutching.” The removed eggs were placed in incubators for hatching. To make the hand-raised condors feel like they were being raised by their parents, the newly hatched chicks were fed and cared for using adult look-alike condor puppets. Taped sounds of adult condors were played to the chicks as well. In the wild, both parents incubate the egg and care for the chick, and they may only raise one chick every other year.
Full circle: reintroduction
In the early 1990s, captive-bred condors were reintroduced into the wild in California. As of April 30, 2012, there are 405 California condors, including 226 birds currently living in the wild. However, reintroduction is not the end of the story. Appreciation and protection of the condors' wild habitat is crucial for their ongoing survival. This is not always an easy task. Animals that are legally shot by hunters sometimes get left behind. California condors, who are scavengers by nature, often feed on these carcasses and unintentionally eat the lead fragments from the bullets. These fragments can lead to serious illness or even death for the condor. Another problem for wild condors is the development of new areas for human habitation in traditional condor habitat.
Condors still need the watchful eye and careful protection of conservationists and all of us who want to see them survive into the future. But it is good to know that all the hard work has enabled California condors to stay with us into the 21st century.