California Condor

Common Name (preferred): California Condor
Scientific Name: Gymnogyps californianus
Size (length, wingspan, & weight) English & Metric: Length—47" (1.19 m), Wingspan—108" (2.74 m), Weight—17-22 lbs. (7-10 kg)
Habitat: Coastlines and Deserts
Diet: Only Carrion
Predators: Golden Eagles & Coyotes
California Condor in flight
Condor in Flight

Noel Synder
US Fish and Wildlife Service

General Biology:
The California Condor is the largest bird of prey in North America. However, contrary to popular belief, it is not the biggest bird in North America no matter how carefully the superlative is crafted. Trumpeter Swans, Cygnus buccinator, are consistently heavier, reaching 23 lbs (10.5 kg). The wingspan of American White Pelicans, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos, more consistently reach 108" (2.74 m) and they have a much larger body, measuring 62" (1.58 m). Note: Some condor enthusiasts will report wingspans of 109" (2.76 m) just to push California Condors over the top.

Other birds are often mistaken for condors. Wishful thinking can often be to blame for such incorrect identifications. While in flight, California Condors can be distinguished from other large birds by carefully inspecting their wings. Turkey Vultures, Cathartes aura, are nearly twice as small as Condors, fly like they are intoxicated (rocking back and forth on V-shaped wings) and have light gray or translucent primary feathers on the edges of the wings. Condor wings, on the other hand, have white patches extending out of their "armpits", are held parallel to the ground while soaring, and fly with steady smooth beats. Juvenile Golden Eagles, Aquila chrysaetos, also very large birds, have white patches towards the end of their wings but can be distinguished from condors by their very distinct white tail band. If, however, you happen to see a bird that looks like it's the size of a small airplane and has numbers on its wings like an airplane, then you are one of the lucky few to have seen a California Condor in the wild. All condors living in the wild have large wing-bands with two-digit numbers that they can be seen while the bird is roosting or in flight. There is no sexual dimorphism (observable difference in size or appearance) between males and females.

Condors were extinct in the wild until recently when two populations of condors raised in captivity were reintroduced into the wilds of Northern Arizona and Southern California. The recovery effort continues.

Pair of Condor, resting on a rock outcropping (number 27 on wing of Condor in foreground)
California Condor pair, resting on a rock outcropping (number 27 on wing of Condor in foreground)


Condors reach sexual maturity and attain adult plumage and coloration by 5-6 years of age. Breeding is likely between 6-8 years of age. One egg is laid every other year if a nesting cycle is successful. Instead of having many young and gambling that a few will survive, the condor produces very few young and provides an extensive amount of parental care. To date, no successful hatches have occurred in either of the reintroduced populations, but courtship behavior is often observed and at least one egg has been laid.

Although nestlings fledge (leave nest) fully grown at six months of age, juvenile condors may be dependent on their parents for more than a year. Reintroduced condors are released on their own and must learn to forage and survive alone.

Condors are strictly scavengers. Unlike Turkey Vultures, condors do not have an exceptional sense of smell. They instead find their food visually, ranging as much as 100 miles a day, often investigating the activity of ravens, coyotes, eagles, and other scavengers. Unfortunately, too many of the condors have had to learn the hard way that most of these other carrion-eating animals can be dangerous company and unlike other condors, are unwilling to share their spoils. Condor mortality is especially high when they come into contact with Golden Eagles and Coyotes, canis latrans. Without the guidance of their parents, young inexperienced juvenile condors may also investigate the activity of humans, which can get them into trouble. Condors can be somewhat gregarious. They usually roost together and even seek out food in pairs or larger groups.

Two California Condors, one on a railing at a viewpoint. A second condor is preparing to land near the first.
California Condors on a railing in an undisclosed location


During the last Ice Age, condor-like birds ranged throughout the New World but were especially abundant in South America. Fossils of prehistoric condors, known as Teratorns, had 14-20 ft. (4-6 m) wingspans! Yet when the giant mammals of the Ice Age went extinct, condors evolved into smaller forms (some paleontologists refute the evidence that condors descended from Teratorns) and later almost went extinct. Once the huge piles of dead meat (mammoths, etc.) were gone, the big birds quickly declined.

By the 20th century, California Condors occurred only in California, Nevada, and northern Mexico. It is speculated that, if not for beached whales along the California Coast and excessive grazing by sheep and cattle in the desert southwest, condors might have gone extinct long ago. By 1982, there were only 22 in the wild. The final decline was caused mainly by lead poisoning, pesticides, shootings, collisions with power lines, and loss of habitat.

Emergency measures were needed and the Department of the Interior selected the Peregrine Fund to intervene after much controversy. Founded in 1970 in response to the decline in Peregrine populations, the Peregrine Fund are experts at captive breeding and release strategies. They have released over 4000 birds of various kinds into the wild.

In 1987, the last of the wild population was captured and there are now three areas where birds are bred: Los Angeles Zoo, San Diego Wild Animal Park, and the Peregrine Fund facility in Boise, Idaho. In 1988, the first pair was bred successfully. By late 1995, there were 103 individuals. In January 1992, captive-raised young condors were released in several wilderness sites in their former range in California. In 1996, the first release of birds was done in Northern Arizona. Subsequent releases have raised the Arizona population to 31 birds, and as of September 2002, a total of 42 condors explore the skies of California.

It is a goal of the program to have 150 birds in each of three areas: California, Arizona, and in the captive breeding program. There are now 119 birds breeding. There are three hurdles to overcome in establishing a self-sustaining wild population: 1. Maintain maximum survivability of released birds. This is accomplished by tracking closely, giving supplemental feedings and medications, as needed. 2. Encouraging natural foraging behavior ultimately allowing for no supplemental feeding. Many of the birds are now finding their own carcasses, usually cattle. 3. Upon reaching sexual maturity (5-6 yrs.) have pairing, breeding, and successful rearing of young. For current information contact California Condor Restoration Conservation Projects.

Range of California Condors (marked in red) Southern California and northern Arizona

When and where to see at Bryce:
At Bryce Canyon, condor sightings are rare and impossible to predict. If you are so lucky as to see a condor, please enjoy the birds from a safe distance. Do not approach or attempt to feed a condor. If a condor approaches you, or you observe anyone harassing or harming a condor, immediately notify a Park Ranger.

Never shoot at or throw objects at a condor. The California Condor, hawks, eagles, vultures, and owls are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty and the Endangered Species Act. Under these acts, it is illegal to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, or attempt to do any of these activities to a bird of prey.

If you should observe a condor in Bryce Canyon National Park, please report your sighting to a Park Ranger. Helpful information would include date, time, location, number of birds observed, and wing tag numbers, if possible.

Further Reading:
The Peregrine Fund, 566 West Flying Hawk Lane, Boise, Idaho 83709, Ph. 208-362-3716, Fax 208-362-2376, E-mail

Dunn, John L. 1999. The National Geographic Field Guide to Birds: 3rd Edition. National Geographic, Washington D.C.

Erlich, Paul R. et al. 1988. The Birder's Handbook: a field guide to the natural history of North American Birds, Simon and Schuster/Fireside Books, New York

Sibley, David Allen. 2001. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior. Knopf Publishing

Last updated: February 24, 2015

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