When it comes to birding, the California condor is one of the rarest species in the world to see in the wild – unless you’re in these places.
The California Condor is one of the rarest and most special American birds. It is a New World vulture and the largest land bird in North America. It became extinct in the wild in 1987 when all remaining wild individuals were captured for an ambitious breeding program to protect them from impending extinction.
Today, these magnificent birds have been reintroduced into the wild. America is one of the best countries in the world for wildlife tourism, and the condor is just one of many special native animals that can be found in the United States.
Why the California condor is unique and special
The California condor reaches a wingspan of 9.8 feet or 3 meters – the widest of any North American bird. It is also heavy for a flying bird weighing up to 26 lbs or 12 kilograms – almost the same as a trumpeter swan – and is the heaviest of the native birds of North America.
- Lifetime: Up to 60 years old – One of the longest living birds in the world
- Ceiling: The California Condor can hover up to 15,000 feet
As well as being a special sight for today’s hikers, Condors were considered sacred birds to the Native Americans who lived in the great outdoors of the American West.
Fossil records show that these magnificent vultures once reached Florida and New York. They are believed to be something of an evolutionary anachronism. They evolved to grow as they fed on the large prehistoric herds that once roamed the continent.
But like extinct herds (mammoths, horses, etc.), so did they. In modern times, their range had been reduced primarily to the deserts of southern California and parts of Arizona, Utah, and Mexico.
Leads to virtual extinction
In the 20th century, their populations plummeted as they were on the verge of extinction due to DDT poisoning, poaching, lead poisoning and habitat destruction. In 1987, there were only 27 wild condors left.
- Registered: Listed by IUCN as Critically Endangered
When their wild population fell to just 10 birds, they were captured for breeding, making a total of only 27 birds in the world. They were all captured and bred at the San Diego Wild Animal Park and the Los Angeles Zoo.
- Near extinction: Their population fell to 27 birds in 1987
- Lead poisoning: They accidentally ingested fragments of lead-based ammunition while collecting hunted animals
- Driving ban: Since 2019, the use of lead ammunition has been banned in California
- Pesticides: Pesticides have thinned their already fragile eggshells
Back from the edge
Thanks to carefully managed captive breeding, their numbers increased and from 1991 they were reintroduced into the wild. Their population has grown steadily since then but they remain one of the rarest birds in the world with a population of 518 in the wild and in captivity in 2019.
- Population: 518 Total population in 2019
- Current population trend: Increasing
One of the problems is that California condors mature and reproduce slowly. They are only between six and eight years old and the female lays only one egg every two years. That being said, if the egg is removed, she will lay a second or third egg. Knowing this, environmentalists began collecting eggs for incubation in captivity.
Fortunately, breeding programs have proven to be remarkably successful.
Behavior and where to see them
Like vultures, condors feed on the carcasses of the large mammals they find. When they find it, they can binge to the point that they have to rest for several hours before they can fly again.
- Scientific name: gymnogyps californianus
- Diet: The Condor is a scavenger that eats large amounts of carrion
Although they spend a lot of time foraging, they spend most of their time preening, sunbathing, and grooming in their perch.
Today, condors are found in northern Arizona and southern Utah (including the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park – Zion is one of the best places to view wildlife), as well than the coastal mountains of central and southern California and northern Baja California in Mexico.
- In nature: Found in Grand Canyon, Zion, parts of California, and Baja California in Mexico
The first wild nesting in Grand Canyon National Park since their reintroduction was in 2001. In 2008, for the first time since the program began, there were more California condors flying in the wild than in captivity.
We can read about their reintroduction on the National Park Service website. the National Park Service also has a full explanation condor threats, threats, prehistoric condors and condor rangers educational programs.
They are all numbered and are closely monitored. Hopefully their populations will continue to rebound.
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