Gymnogyps californianusCalifornia condor(Also: Californian condor)

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Geographic Range

Previously G. californianus was found in a range extending along the entire Pacific coast of North America. It is now restricted to central southern California. Fossil evidence indicates that California condors or their direct ancestors inhabited North America as far east as New York and Florida. (Greenway 1967, Koford 1953)

Habitat

California condors are found in southern central California deserts. Suitable permanant roosting sites must have rocky cliffs and rubble for nesting. The birds range over very large areas to find food but keep a home nest that they return to. ( http://diddl.tuwien.ac.at/~elcondor/bio-info.html. Greenway 1967)

Physical Description

Individuals of this very large new world vulture are usually 46 to 55 inches from head to tail with a wingspan of up to 9.8 feet. While there is some sexual dimorphism - the male tends to be larger than the female - the size difference is minimal and data on sizes of the sexes overlap. An adult G. californianus has a distinguishing orange-red head and neck which is bare skin except for sparse black feathers on the forehead. The body is feathered in black with large white patches on the underside of the wings; a black feather ruff rings the neck. The sexes are alike in coloring and plumage.

Juveniles of this species are covered in gray down, which is replaced by adult plumage at 5 to 7 months of age. Even after full mature flying feathers are grown, a young California condor retains the dark gray color of its head for 4 to 5 years.

( http://www.peregrinefund.org/condview.html; Greenway 1967; Mountfort 1988; Koford 1953)

  • Range mass
    9000 to 11000 g
    317.18 to 387.67 oz

Reproduction

Breeding in California condors begins at 6 years of age at youngest. A single egg is layed every other year by a breeding pair. On reaching full maturity, male G. californianus make courtship displays of outspread wings and head bobbing. After a female accepts a male's overtures, the birds form lifelong monogamous pairs. The incubation period is about 56 days and eggs are layed between February and April. Nests are found in cliffside caves or among rocky outcropping and clefts. Both parents care for the single egg and nestling. Young G. californianus remain with the parents for up to a year before leaving the nest; the young begin to fly at 6 to 7 months.

(Greenway 1967; Mountfort 1988)

  • Average eggs per season
    1
    AnAge
  • Average time to hatching
    57 days
    AnAge
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    Sex: female
    2190 days
    AnAge
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    Sex: male
    2190 days
    AnAge

Lifespan/Longevity

Behavior

California condors are not flocking birds but there does seem to be some social structure, and they mate for life. While G. californianus are not migratory, they cover a large amount of territory in search of food, always returning to the same nesting or roosting place. They do not have songs or vocalizations other than growling, grunting and hissing noises directed at other condors, in social situations like group roosting and feeding. When California condors are not caring for young, most of their time is taken up foraging for food and roosting. Condors have remarkable soaring and flying capabilities; they are able to soar without flapping for more than an hour, and may cover 100 miles in a day searching for suitable food. When circling on warm air currents, G. californianus rises as high as 1500 feet alititude and, when actively flying - usually in pursuit of or flight from another condor - they can achieve speeds up to 55 mph.

Condors spend more time in a day roosting than flying. This time is mostly taken up with preening or sunning. Sunning is done mostly first thing in the morning, when the condors warm up with the sun's rising. The black birds capture sunlight and warmth with extended wings turned to the sun.

California condors also spend much of their time grooming; plumage is carefully preened and kept well arranged and the bare head and neck are cleaned after feeding. At watering holes, G. californianus are often seen bathing, using water to clean food and dust from their feathers. Preening and grooming the bare skin on their heads are particularly important to California condors because of their carrion diet. The dead and possibly rotten flesh that G. californianus prefers is very dirty and has the potential for infecting a bird with decaying materials. The role of carrion-eating is important in an ecosystem, but the condors need mechanisms to keep themselves healthy in the presence of the kind of germs and poisons on decaying carcasses.

( http://diddl.tuwien.ac.at/~elcondor/bio-info.html; Greenway 1967; Koford 1953)

Communication and Perception

Food Habits

California condors are carrion eaters, primarily consuming large carcasses like goat, cattle, sheep, deer, horse and coyote, although they are also known to eat smaller food, such as rabbit and squirrel. Condors prefer fresh kills, but they also eat decayed food when neccessary. They may fly dozens of miles a day in search of food. ( http://diddl.tuwien.ac.at/~elcondor/bio-info.html; http://www.peregrinefund.org/condview.html; Greenway 1967; Mountfort 1988; Schorsch 1991; Koford 1953.)

  • Primary Diet
  • carnivore
    • eats terrestrial vertebrates

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

The most valuble role of carrion feeders is the safe disposal of dead, decomposing and diseased animals, protecting human and animal co-habitants from ill effect. Adult G. californianus require up to 3 pounds of meat a day; a healthy population of such carrion eaters can have an important impact on removing diseased and rotting carcasses from the area.

Conservation Status

California condors are extremely endangered. In the late 1970's, the species was reduced to a population of less than 25 birds. Scientists hoped to maintain a wild population but when the species continued to decline, every remaining individual was rounded up and the last wild G. californianus was captured in 1987. After several years of a successful captive breeding program in Los Angeles and San Diego, the first two condors were reintroduced to a California wild sanctuary in 1991. More than a dozen Condors have since been reintroduced but the mortality rate is high and the wild socialization of captive-bred birds has been difficult. More than 120 G. californianus are now living; the majority are still captive but there is a long term plan of continued breeding and wild release. The exact causes of California condors' rapid decline in the past decade is uncertain, although the species has been known to be threatened since the late 19th century. Factors contributing to the decline include poisoning, chemical pollution, loss of habitat and loss of food resources, as well as a historical problem of hunting and scientific over-collection.

Condors' consumption of poisoned bait meat, put out by ranchers and intended for coyotes, as well as lead poisoning from bullets in animals killed by ranchers, have been the reported cause of some condor deaths. The presence of pesticide DDT in condor habitats led to problems with breeding and brittle eggshells that further reduced the reproductive capability of these already slow-multiplying birds. The loss of habitat, erection of electrical and telephone lines in the habitats, and loss of prey populations have all also been damaging to the condors.

In the past, especially during the early European exploration of California, sport hunting and scientific collection of eggs and skins threatened G. californianus populations.

( http://www.peregrinefund.org/condview.html; Mountfort 1988; Schorsch 1991)

Other Comments

California condors or their ancestor species have inhabited North America since at least the Pliestocene era, from which fossils have been found ranging from the Los Angeles La Brea tar pits to Florida. An ancestor of the California condor, Teratornis incredibilis had a wingspan of 17 feet and may have been the largest bird ever to fly. The modern G. californianus, though reduced from this prehistoric size, is still the largest North American landbird with a documented wingspan of up to 9.8 feet and reported spans of 11 and 13 feet. Some Western Native American tribes traditionally recognised California condors as sacred birds; feathers and other tokens were used for ceremonies and religious purposes. Although the Condors were occasionally sacrificed for funeral rituals, the original population size of G. californianus remained relatively unaffected by humans until the European colonization.

(www.peregrinefund.org/condview.html; Greenway 1967; Mountfort 1988)

Contributors

Megan Lyzenga (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

Glossary

Nearctic

living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

carrion

flesh of dead animals.

chaparral

Found in coastal areas between 30 and 40 degrees latitude, in areas with a Mediterranean climate. Vegetation is dominated by stands of dense, spiny shrubs with tough (hard or waxy) evergreen leaves. May be maintained by periodic fire. In South America it includes the scrub ecotone between forest and paramo.

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

desert or dunes

in deserts low (less than 30 cm per year) and unpredictable rainfall results in landscapes dominated by plants and animals adapted to aridity. Vegetation is typically sparse, though spectacular blooms may occur following rain. Deserts can be cold or warm and daily temperates typically fluctuate. In dune areas vegetation is also sparse and conditions are dry. This is because sand does not hold water well so little is available to plants. In dunes near seas and oceans this is compounded by the influence of salt in the air and soil. Salt limits the ability of plants to take up water through their roots.

endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

oviparous

reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

tactile

uses touch to communicate

visual

uses sight to communicate

References

ElCondor Website. 1998. http://diddl.tuwien.ac.at/~elcondor/bio-info.html

The Peregrine Fund, Jeff Cliek. 1995. http://www.peregrinefund.org/condview.html

Greenway, James C. 1967. Extinct and Vanishing Birds of the World. Dover Publications, New York.

Mountfort, Guy. 1988. Rare Birds of the World. Stephen Green Press Inc, New York.

Schorsch, Nancy T. 1991. Saving the Condor. Franklin Watts, New York.

Koford, Carl B. 1953. The California Condor. Dover Publications Inc, New York.