There’s something very impressive about super large birds. I think it’s the fact that they are so big, yet still able to fly so gracefully. Today I want to talk about one such bird, the California condor. The story of the condor is a bit of a sad one, though there is hope for this magnificent species. I’ll get to that bit, but first let’s find out exactly what a condor is.

Condors are vultures, and are the only living members of the genus Gymnogyps. They live, unsurprisingly, in California, though historically lived on the west coast and in the American southwest. Today they are restricted to an area of central California. They live in desert or shrubland habitats, and need access to rocky areas in which to roost and nest. Condors have a home nest that they return to every night, but fly over incredible distances during the day to find food.

A bunch of young condors feeding. All of them are tagged to aid in conservation efforts. Image By Clendenen, David – U.S. Fish % Wildlife Service digital library, WO-5529-30, Public Domain

One of the most amazing things about condors is their sheer size. They are the largest land birds in North America, with a wingspan of three meters. THREE METERS. That’s ridiculous. Can you imagine looking up and seeing a three meter bird flying overhead? I’d be terrified. They are also the second heaviest birds in North America, losing out at twelve kilograms only to the trumpeter swan. Condors basically look like vultures, with black feathers and a featherless red head.

That ugly head is like that for a very good reason – condors are carrion eaters. They have to stick their necks into rotten corpses, and one thing they really don’t want is putrid flesh clinging to a mess of feathers. Condors range over long distances to find enough food to eat, and can easily travel 250 kilometres in a day. Condors are expert soarers, which makes covering long distances feasible. They can soar for over an hour before having to flap their wings. They cannot smell carrion, but instead rely on other scavengers to alert them to meals. These little guys are easily scared off by the larger condor, which then gorges itself, sometimes eating 1.5 kilograms of meat in one sitting.

A young condor being fed by by a puppet.
Image Source, Public Domain

One of the amazing things about the condor is its conservation history. A combination of poaching, habitat destruction and poisoning all contributed to the rapid decline of the condor population. This wasn’t helped by the condor’s low reproductive rate, as they only lay one egg every two years. In 1987 a decision was made to catch all wild condors for captive breeding programs, which was a whopping total of 22 birds. That’s right, in 1987 only 22 California condors existed in the entire world, and all of them were in captivity. A breeding program was started, which was not immediately successful due to the low reproductive rate. Breeders soon discovered that if you remove a condor’s egg, they will lay another egg, and using this method and rearing the first chick with a condor puppet, they were able to double the reproductive rate.

They’re quite attractive birds, in a vultury kind of way. Image Source. CC BY 3.0

As of May 2013, there were 435 condors, with 237 wild condors and 198 in captivity. Although this still makes the California condor as one of the rarest birds on the planets, I think the recovery of the species is quite amazing. Hopefully they continue to recover and achieve a happy and stable population.

Update: as of 2019, there are 518 California condors either in the wild or in captivity. Hooray!

Cover image source. Public Domain