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Biology of the California Condor
Classification | Range | Habitat | Color | Size | Talons | Beak| Voice | Crop | Senses | Air Sacs | Life Span | Breeding | Maturity | Courtship | Nesting | Eggs | Incubation | Chicks | Feeding | Bathing | Roosting | Flight | Playing
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California condor, Gymnogyps californianus. (photo: USFWS)
The California condor, Gymnogyps californianus, is a member of
the family Ciconiidae, or "New World vultures." The closest
living relative is the Andean condor, Vultur gryphus, found in
South America. Other members of the family include the turkey and black
vultures. Originally classified in the order Falconiformes with
eagles, hawks, falcons and Old World vultures, the New World vultures
have recently been shown to be more closely related to storks and belong
in the order Ciconiiformes.
|California Condor Range during the Pleistocene Era
During the Pleistocene Era, ending 10,000 years ago, the condor's range extended
across much of NorthAmerica. At the time of the arrival of pioneers, the
condor ranged along the pacific coast from British Columbia south through
Baja California, Mexico. By 1940 the range had been reduced to the coastal
mountains of southern California with nesting occurring primarily in the rugged,
chaparral-covered mountains, and foraging in the foothills and grasslands
of the San Joaquin Valley. Today condors are being reintroduced into the mountains
of southern California north of the Los Angeles basin, in the Big Sur vicinity
of the central California coast, and near the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
California condors require large areas of remote country for foraging, roosting,
and nesting. Condors roost on large, trees or snags, or on isolated rocky
outcrops and cliffs. Nests are placed in shallow caves and rock crevices on
cliffs where there is minimal disturbance. Foraging habitat includes open
grasslands and oak savanna foothills that support populations of large mammals
such as deer and cattle. Condors may fly 150 miles a day in search of food.
Males and females are similar in appearance. Adult condors
have a mostly bald head and neck. The skin of the head and neck is colored
in shades of pink, red, orange, yellow, and light blue; becoming more intensely
pink/orange during times of excitement and in the breeding season. Feathers
are mostly black except for white underwing linings. Juvenile birds have dusky
black heads and bodies with limited white underwing linings. At hatch, chicks
have light pink and orange skin and are covered in off-white down which is
quickly replaced by gray down.
California condors have a wing span of about 9.5 feet. Adult
condors stand at a height of 45-55 inches and weigh 17 to 25 pounds. Males
are generally slightly larger than females.
Unlike birds of prey, condors do not have sharp talons capable
of killing or grasping objects.
The condor's beak is long, sharp, and powerful. It can pierce
the hide of a horse. Condors use their beaks to tear the flesh from carcasses,
and to touch, feel, and explore their surroundings. Condors have been observed
using their beak to remove foliage from trees to create better roosting sites,
and manipulating rocks and other objects in caves to improve the nesting area.
The condor has no syrinx (voice box), but communicates with
a combination of hisses, growls, and grunts. There is also a well-developed
system of communication through body language.
The crop is a pouch like enlargement below the throat where
food is stored and partially digested before it enters the stomach. In one
feeding an adult California condor can take in as much as 3 to 4 pounds in
its crop. A crop can be seen as a bulge in the upper chest area of a condor.
Condors have keen eyesight to help them spot food from great
heights. The color of their iris changes from tan to red as the bird matures.
Condors do not have a good sense of smell and do not use it to locate food
as do turkey vultures. California condors have good hearing.
Condors have air sacs located under their skin in their
neck and throat regions. When agitated or excited they inflate these sacs
which gives them a larger more impressive appearance.
It is not known how long condors live, however the oldest
California condor in captivity was born in 1966. An Andean condor in a zoo
in Italy died recently at 71 years of age. Scientists believe that condors
in the wild did not live to much over 40 years of age.
California condors reach sexual maturity when they are 5
to 7 years of age.
|Condors copulate at San Diego Wild Animal Park. Photo Credit SDWAP
The male condor repeatedly performs highly ritualized courtship
displays to the female, standing with his wings partially held out, head down,
and neck arched forward; he turns slowly around, rocking from side to side.
Graceful acrobatic flights, where one partner follows the other, are also
performed by the pair. Condor pairs stay together over successive seasons.
However, if one partner is lost, a new partner will be sought.
Nests are usually placed in caves on the face of steep cliffs.
Two cavity nests were discovered in holes at the top of giant sequoia trees.
No nesting material is added.
The female lays a single pale aqua-colored egg, which initially
weighs approximately 280 grams (10 ounces) and measures 110 x 67 mm (4.4 x
2.7 inches). If an egg is lost to breakage or predators, the pair will often
produce a replacement egg in 4 to 5 weeks, a practice known as "double
Parents alternate incubating the egg, each often staying
with the egg for up to several days at a time.
The chick hatches after 54 to 58 days of incubation. The parents
share duties in feeding and brooding (warming) the chick. Chicks are fed partially
digested food regurgitated from the adult's crop. Flight feathers are fully
developed at about six months of age. The chick is dependent on its parents
for one to two years as it learns to forage and feed on its own in the wild.
Condors do not kill for food; they are carrion eaters and
prefer to feed on the carcasses of large mammals including deer, marine mammals
such as whales and seals, and cattle. A condor may eat up to 3 to 4 pounds
at a time and may not need to feed again for several days. Condors find their
food by sight or by following other scavenging birds. Condors normally feed
in a group where a strict dominance hierarchy is followed. Dominant birds
usually eat first and take the choicest parts of the carcass.
Condors are fastidious birds; after eating they bathe in
rock pools and will spend many hours preening and drying their feathers. If
no water is available they will clean their heads and necks by rubbing them
on grass, rocks, or tree branches.
Condors spend most of their time perched, sunning and preening.
Condors roost where they can easily launch themselves into flight with just
a few wing beats. Roost sites include large trees, snags, cliffs, and rocky
outcrops. Condors will often roost in groups and will return to the same roost
sites year after year. Dominant birds often take the choice position in a
California condors can soar on warm thermal updrafts for hours,
reaching speeds of more than 55 miles per hour and altitudes of 15,000 feet.
Flights up to 150 miles in a day have been recorded. Condors hold their wings
in a horizontal position and fly very steadily, unlike turkey vultures which
fly with their wings held in a V-shape and appear to be unsteady or "wobbly."
Condors are highly intelligent, social birds. They are inquisitive
and often engage in play, especially immature birds. They will entertain themselves
at length with feathers, sticks, and grass, often playing tug-of-war, and
tossing, chasing, and retrieving the objects. This activity is especially
pronounced around water holes.