California Condor

The reestablishment of the California condor is one of the most notable achievements in the zoological field. Captive breeding programs of a limited number of individuals have resulted in successful reintroduction of these birds into the wild. These massive animals are a wonderful and inspiring success story. Read on to learn about the California condor.

Description of the California Condor

California condors are the largest bird in North America. With a nine-foot wingspan, distinctive white patches under the wings, and easily visible “finger-like” wing tips, the California condor is hard to miss! They have a bald, pink, head and neck, and black feathers resembling a “feather boa” around the base of the neck.

Interesting Facts About the California Condor

After facing virtual extinction, these magnificent birds are soaring through the skies again thanks to successful captive breeding programs! Learn more about these unique birds, and their interesting adaptations below.

  • Bald is Beautiful – California condors, like many other vulture species, have a bald head and neck. While they may look ugly to you, this lack of feathers has a purpose for the birds. Condors feeding on carcasses can dig into the rotting flesh without entangling debris in their feathers, because they don’t have any. This adaptation allows the birds to effectively clean themselves, which is vitally important to maintaining their health.
  • Chameleon Birds – By keeping that bald head and neck clean, condors can also communicate more effectively with others. Because they are bald, blood flow to the area can be seen under the skin without pesky feathers blocking the view. When the bird is alarmed, excited, or seeking a mate, blood will flow to the area turning the skin bright pink or red.
  • Monogamy, with Conditions – California condors are monogamous and mate for life – if they like their partner, that is. An unsuccessful pairing will “divorce,” and each bird will seek a more compatible mate. Once they find an appropriate partner they will mate for life.
  • High-Flying Speedsters – California condors are built for soaring. These birds use their immense wings to ride rising thermal air currents, and will glide at great heights searching for food. They have been found flying as high as 15,000 feet in the air! Condors can also reach speeds of up to 55 miles per hour.

Habitat of the California Condor

California condors soar across a wide variety of habitats in search of food. They frequent beaches, meadows, forests, mountains, and canyons.

Distribution of the California Condor

Modern Range

California condor populations have been reestablished in a small number of locations, through release programs. There are populations of wild condors in California (hence the name California condor), Arizona, and Mexico.

The three release sights in California are the Ventana Wilderness in Big Sur, Pinnacles National Monument (also near Big Sur), and the Los Padres National Forest, north of Los Angeles. The release sight in Arizona is Vermilion Cliffs, just north of the Grand Canyon. Finally, the release sight in Mexico is the Sierra San Pedro Martir Mountains of Baja California.

Historic Range

Historically, California condors could be found across much of the Western U.S., and some areas of Mexico. There are even fossil records suggesting the presence of condors in Florida and New York as well. Confirmed remains have been identified in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and Texas.

Diet of the California Condor

The California condor feeds on carrion, which is the carcasses of dead animals. They do not hunt live prey in any fashion. Condors prefer to feed on carcasses of large mammals. Some of their favorite foods are deer, sheep, goats, pigs, donkeys, horses, bears, cattle, and cougars. California condors have also been recorded feeding on rabbits, marine mammals, and fish.

The Importance of Scavengers

Imagine a world where all your garbage simply piled up in your home … that’s a world without scavengers! Without vultures and condors cleaning up carcasses, decaying animals would become a health hazard. Decomposing animals become infested with bacteria, and these bacteria would be deadly to other animals that come in contact with them.

Vultures and condors are immune to the various diseases and bacteria that a carcass would otherwise spread; botulism, rabies, anthrax, and cholera are all eliminated safely. Unfortunately, these condors are not immune to human-introduced toxins, and many vulture species are inadvertently poisoned by human activity.

California Condor and Human Interaction

California condors were very nearly wiped off the face of the earth in 1982. Just 22 animals remained due to habitat destruction, lead poisoning, and outright killing of the birds. Lead ammunition still accounts for over 55% of California condor deaths in the wild.

When hunters shoot an animal using lead ammunition, and leave the carcass behind, whatever scavengers feed on the carcass ingest that lead. Because condors’ stomachs are specially designed to digest volatile substances, they are capable of digesting the lead bullets. This lead is then absorbed by the stomach, and spread through the bloodstream, and enough lead can disorient and eventually kill the condor.

California Condor Recovery Program

The California Condor Recovery Program is an immense effort led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The purpose of the program is to save remaining populations of California condors, establish a healthy captive breeding population, begin release of captive bred individuals back into the wild, and re-establish healthy self-sustaining wild populations. The initial goal was to establish wild populations in two separate locations, and maintain a population in zoos. This original goal has been surpassed and more, with a total of five wild populations today.

The main contributors to the California Condor Recovery Program include:

  • U. S. FWS
  • Certain governmental agencies, including various State Parks, Land Management, and Fish & Game
  • San Diego Zoo
  • Santa Barbara Zoo
  • Los Angeles Zoo
  • Oregon Zoo
  • Chapultepec Zoo
  • Ventana Wildlife Society
  • Peregrine Fund

Now that the Recovery Program has reached its final stage of regaining wild populations, efforts have been redirected to maintaining the safety of wild birds. Wild condor nests are monitored for potential problems, wild condors are frequently tested for dangerous concentrations of lead, and initiatives to reduce the amount of lead ammunition used by hunters are currently under way.

California Condor as a Success Story

The California condor is the perfect ambassador for the importance of zoos and aquariums. By working together with a number of Federal and State organizations, captive breeding programs have been able to successfully reintroduce these birds back into the wild.

The Condor Recovery Program began with just 22 condors left, and today the population is 463 birds in total, with 290 in the wild! Spreading information about endangered animals, inspiring our youth to care about wildlife and the environment, and maintaining healthy populations in human care, are just a few of the important jobs zoos and aquariums do.


Though the California condor has been maintained in a zoological setting, and has been successfully bred using captive breeding programs, all efforts have been made to keep the condors wild. The breeding program’s success lies in the ability of released condors to survive and reproduce in the wild – this would be impossible if they were domesticated.

Does the California Condor Make a Good Pet

The California condor would not make a good pet, even if it were legal to own one. They require a varied diet, and a very large enclosure (Remember that 9 ft. wingspan? That’s just an average!). Enjoy condors in zoos instead. California condors can be viewed by the public at the San Diego Zoo, Santa Barbara Zoo, and Oregon Zoo.

California Condor Care

The San Diego Zoo’s condors are kept in six large, free-flight aviaries to better prepare animals for release into the wild. The condors are fed rats, rabbits, trout, zoo carnivore diet, and beef spleen. The food source is changed at every feeding, and the condors are fed four times per week to simulate accurate feeding periods in the wild. Wild birds experience fasting times in between carcasses, so birds at the zoo are given “fast” days as well, to aid in proper digestion once released.

Behavior of the California Condor

California condors have a quite complex social structure, as many birds can feed off of a single large carcass. Birds use body posture and simple vocal cues to communicate, and develop a “pecking order” amongst themselves. The condors do not make complex songs, but will hiss, grunt, and wheeze at one another to get their point across.

Reproduction of the California Condor

Once they have found an adequate and successful partner, California condors will mate for life. The condors are monogamous, and once they have chosen a mate they will generally continue mating with that bird until they die. Some condors will initially pair off and find the relationship unsuccessful; these birds will simply separate and find new mates.

The female condor lays a single egg that both parents incubate. The nest is usually located on a cliff side, and consists of pebbles, wood chips, or dirt. Most pairs reproduce once every two years, unless the egg is lost (in which case the female will lay a replacement egg). Chicks will stay with their parents for up to two years, and reach maturity at five years of age.

Beliefs About the California Condor – The Thunderbird

Native American tribes esteemed the California condor as a symbol of power. It’s not difficult to see why. As the largest bird in North America, the California condor soaring across the sky is a majestic sight! These Native Americans called the California condor “The Thunderbird.” They believed that The Thunderbird brought the thunder to the skies with the beats of his great wings.