California Condor Facts

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Scientific Name: Gymnogyps californianus
Family: Cathartidae (New World Vultures)

 
redwood nest
Adult male condor incubates his egg in a redwood tree nest on the Big Sur coast.

NPS/Gavin Emmons

All About Condors

California condors are the largest land birds in North America, with impressive wingspans of 9.5 feet and weights of around 20 pounds. The exact lifespan of a California condor is unknown, but they are estimated to live over 60 years.

These giants soar on wind thermals high above the ground and use their sharp eyesight to spot food below. Condors are scavengers - they strictly eat dead things, and have been seen feeding on everything from ground squirrels to beached whales. Condors need a big territory that provides adequate food and shelter. They’ve been known to fly up to 200 miles in a single day, using their huge wings to soar long distances with minimal effort. Ideal condor habitat consists of wide expanses of undeveloped land, large trees for roosting, and rocky cliffs or tree cavities for nesting.

Condors are very social animals, and can form strong bonds with each other. They are also very playful and curious birds, and it's not uncommon to see them play fighting, preening each other, or ganging up and inspecting anything new they may find in the area.

 
Condors landing in the High Peaks.
A group of condors socializes in the High Peaks.

NPS/Gavin Emmons

Condor Reproduction

Condors typically -- though not always -- form long-term bonds with one mate year after year. Mated pairs start the courtship process during the winter months; during this period they will spend nearly all of their time together, preening each other and checking out potential nest sites. Male condors perform a display “dance” for their mate, after which the pair may copulate.

After a few weeks or months of courtship, a mated pair of condors chooses a suitable nesting site. They don’t build nests like many other birds, but instead find cavities in rocky cliffs or in the hollows of large redwood trees. Sometime between January and March, the female condor will lay a single egg in the nest cavity. Both parents take turns incubating the egg for two months until it hatches, and then continue to share parenting duties of their nestling for another six months in the nest until it fledges (learns to fly).

After this intensive parenting effort in the nest, the pair will continue to care for their newly fledged offspring for up to another year. Because of the time and energy it takes to raise one young condor to independence, condors only have one young every two years. The slow reproductive rate of California condors makes these birds more susceptible to population crashes from threats like lead poisoning, and slower to recover their populations after significant mortality events.

 
318 with nestling
A condor guards its young nestling.

NPS/Gavin Emmons

Recovery Efforts

California condors once ranged from British Columbia, Canada down to Baja California, Mexico. This range shrank with the increase of European settlers moving west. The causes of the decrease in condors included poisoning, shooting, habitat degradation, and the collection of eggs and feathers. By the late 1800s, naturalists were already making note of the California condors’ declining numbers and in 1967, condors were listed as an endangered species. Despite this protection, their population continued to decrease and dropped to a low of 22 individuals in the 1980s. All wild condors were then trapped and placed in captive breeding programs in an effort to save the species from extinction.

Since 1992, captive-bred condors have been released at five different sites in western North America (Pinnacles National Park, Big Sur, Hopper Mountain Wildlife Refuge Complex, Vermillion Cliffs, and Baja California). Each release site monitors the flock’s behaviors, movements, nesting attempts, and mortalities. Pinnacles joined the recovery program in 2003 with the release of 2 captive-bred condors on December 20th. In 2016, the first condor chick since 1898 (condor 828) fledged from a nest within Pinnacles.

Since their reintroduction, condor numbers in the wild have slowly increased thanks to wild nesting and the release of captive-bred condors. As of the end of 2018, there were a total of 488 condors in the world, with 312 of those flying free in the wild. However, condors today are still dying due to lead poisoning, consuming litter and microtrash, and electrocution from power poles. Learn more about what you can do to help condors and other wildlife here.

Last updated: September 24, 2019

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Mailing Address:

5000 Highway 146
Paicines, CA 95043

Phone:

(831) 389-4486
To contact the Pinnacles Campground, please call (831) 200-1722.

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