The California condor, Gymnogyps californianus, is one of the largest flying birds in the world. When it soars, the wings spread more than nine feet from tip to tip. Condors may weigh more than 20 pounds. The male Andean condor of South America is even larger than our California condor. Both are endangered species.
Condors can soar and glide for hours without beating their wings. After rising thousands of feet overhead on air currents, California condors will glide long distances, sometimes at more than 55 miles per hour. From the air, they search for dead animals, like deer or cattle. They feed only on carrion (dead animals that they find).
Condor nest sites are in cliff caves in the mountains. Some condors have nested in large cavities in the trunks of giant sequoia redwood trees. Nesting condors raise only one chick at a time. The four-inch long egg is laid in late winter or spring, and it takes two months to hatch. It takes more than a year from the time the egg is laid until the young bird has learned to live on its own.
Thousands of years ago, California condors lived in many parts of North America, from California and other Pacific states to Texas, Florida, and New York. In recent centuries, this large vulture was found by early explorers and settlers from British Columbia in Canada to Baja California in Mexico. As people settled the West, they often shot, poisoned, captured, and disturbed the condors, collected their eggs, and reduced their food supply of antelope, elk, and other large wild animals. Eventually, condors could no longer survive in most places. By the late 1900s the remaining individuals were limited to the mountainous parts of southern California, where they fed on dead cattle, sheep, and deer.
Most causes of death in the past two centuries have been from human activities. For nearly 100 years it has been illegal for anyone to kill California condors. But illegal killing was not the only problem that these birds faced. A major problem has been contamination from lead fragments in carcasses, poison bait, and environmental pollutants. Contamination from past use of the pesticide DDT may have prevented the hatching of some condor eggs in the recent past, and human activity in the condor nesting range has been followed by growing numbers of ravens, which threaten condor eggs and nestlings. Accidental collision with wires and structures is a risk to condors, as well. There have been so many problems facing the condor for so long that the species was not going to survive in the wild without help from people.
Today, lead poisoning is a serious problem for the birds in the wild. In an effort to get the lead out of condor range, the Governor signed Assembly Bill 821 (Ridley-Tree Condor Preservation Act (PDF)) in 2007 to create a "non-lead" zone relative to hunting within the range of the California condor. In 2008, the California Fish and Game Commission adopted regulations to implement this law. In 2013, the Governor signed Assembly Bill 711 which requires the use of nonlead ammunition statewide for the taking of all wildlife, including game mammals, game birds, nongame birds, and nongame mammals. Full implementation of this law is required by July 2019. For more information on nonlead see the section below, Condors and Lead.
The California condor has been protected as an endangered species by federal law since 1967 and by California state law since 1971.
In the 1970s, biologists found that only a few dozen condors remained in the wild. In 1980, a major conservation project was started to try to keep the birds from becoming extinct. Many special studies were made. Radio transmitters were placed on the wings of some of the condors. Wild eggs were collected and hatched at the Los Angeles Zoo and San Diego Wild Animal Park, and this helped to increase the population. A few birds were taken to the zoos for captive breeding. But this help came too late to stop the decline in the wild bird population, so in the mid-1980s all of the remaining condors in the wild were captured and taken to zoos.
In April 1987, the last wild condor was captured. The entire world population of the species was 27 birds, and all were housed in two captive breeding facilities in southern California. These individuals were Topatopa, captured in 1967; nine once-free-flying adult and immature birds trapped from 1982 to 1987; four young birds removed as nestlings from nests from 1982 to 1984, and 13 captive-reared condors hatched from eggs removed from nests in 1983 through 1986. Some are very closely related , but others possibly represent distant relatives. Genetics studies of this remaining gene pool indicate that among the 13 birds considered to be "founders," there are three genetic groups, or "clans." Captive breeding must be carefully managed for a number of reasons, such as minimizing loss of genetic diversity.
It was hoped that by raising young condors and releasing them to the wild, the species would be given another chance. But, nobody knew for sure whether captive breeding would be successful. It didn't take long to find out.
The first condor chick hatched out in 1988. Within a few years, it was clear that captive breeding was working. The captive condors had produced more than 100 eggs by 1994. Nearly 20 chicks hatch each year at the four captive breeding centers. The total population grew from 27 birds in 1987 to 161 birds by mid 1999. As of 2016, the total population is 446.
Captive-bred condors have been released in central California (includes release sites in the Big Sur area and Pinnacles National Park), southern California, Arizona, and Baja, Mexico. The Arizona population has expanded into Utah.
Condors don't reach adulthood until they are six or seven years old. They can live for 40 years or more--much longer than most other kinds of birds.
This effort is directed toward developing two distinct reproducing populations in the wild and one in captivity, with at least 150 individuals in each. Until then, the condor population would still be in danger of extinction. It will take many years before we will know whether the condor population will be able to survive.
- In 1979, when there were 25 to 35 condors in the wild and one in captivity, a Cooperative California Condor Conservation Program was formed.
- From 1980 to 1987, field investigations and management programs were undertaken, including radio telemetry studies of birds and captive incubation of wild-collected eggs.
- In 1987, the last wild condor was removed from the wild, and all 27 condors left in the world were being kept in breeding facilities at the Los Angeles Zoo and the San Diego Wild Animal Park.
- In 1988, the first California condor chick hatched in captivity.
- From 1989 to 1991, female Andean condors were released and studied to assess reintroduction techniques.
- In 1992, two of the captive-bred California condors were released in Ventura County, California, five years after the last wild birds had been captured.
- In 1993, a third condor breeding center was established at the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho.
- By 1994, the captive condors had laid more than 100 eggs.
- In 2003, a fourth condor breeding center was established at the Oregon Zoo's Jonsson Center for Wildlife Conservation in Clackamas County Oregon.
- Releases were undertaken in Santa Barbara County, CA, beginning in late 1993; in San Luis Obispo County, CA, in early 1996; in northern Arizona beginning in late 1996, and in Monterey County, CA, beginning in 1997, Baja Mexico in 2002, and San Benito County in 2003.
- Additional release site were added; along the Big Sur coastline in 1997; in Pinnacles National Monument in 2003; in Arizona near Grand Canyon National Park in 1996; and in Baja California, Mexico in Sierra San Pedro de Martir National Park in 2002.
- The first nesting in central California by free flying condors in over a 100 years was documented in 2006. A Big Sur condor pair was found nesting in the burned-out cavity of a Coast Redwood tree.
- The condor population (wild and captive) has steadily increased, reaching over 460 in 2017 (with 170 wild condors in California). For the most current update check out the Condor Population Status Summary (PDF).
Condor Cams and Images
You can see live footage of a captive California condor nest during the breeding season at San Diego Zoo Global. You can visit the Facebook page, The Condor Cave, to see live footage of a free-flying condor nest, or visit Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge webcam. You can view images of free-flying condors at Pinnacles National Park.
Reporting Condor Sightings
Wondering how to report a condor sighting? Check out Pinnacles National Monument website, for tips on condor identification and contact information for reporting a potential sighting.
Want to get involved? You can help scientists learn about condor behavior by getting involved in a citizen science program called Condor Watch.
Education and Outreach
- The CondorKids (YouTube) program, with support from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Santa Barbara Zoo and Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a pilot education and outreach effort that connects students with California condor conservation and recovery efforts.
- New Condor Country application, created by the Santa Barbara Zoo and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, is based on real practices, real locations, and real challenges facing condors in the wild.