Photo: California condor in tree

Sacred to Native Americans and the largest birds in North America, the California condor teeters on the brink of extinction, saved only by captive breeding programs.

Photograph courtesy Scott Frier/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Map

Map: California condor range

California Condor Range

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Fast Facts

Type:
Bird
Diet:
Carnivore
Average life span in the wild:
Up to 60 Years
Size:
Body, 3.5 to 4.5 ft (1.1 to 1.4 m); Wingspan, 9 to 10 ft (2.7 to 3 m)
Weight:
18 to 31 lbs (8 to 14 kg)
Protection status:
Endangered
Size relative to a 6-ft (2-m) man:
Illustration: California condor compared with adult man

The California condor is the largest flying bird in North America. Their wings may stretch nearly 10 feet (3 meters) from tip to tip. When in flight, these huge birds glide on air currents to soar as high as a dizzying 15,000 feet (4,600 meters).

Like other vultures, condors are scavengers that feast on the carcasses of large mammals, such as cattle and deer. When a big meal is available, the birds may gorge themselves so much that they must rest for several hours before flying again.

Condors were sacred birds to the Native Americans who lived in the open spaces of western America. Today, they are best known as the subjects of a famous captive breeding program that may save them from extinction.

After decades of decline, condors neared the point of extinction in the late 1970s, when only two or three dozen birds survived. No one is sure exactly what cause or causes contributed most to this decline. Many birds died from poison ingestion and illegal egg collection, and all felt the steady loss of the open lands over which they once soared. Fossil records also show that the birds occupied only a fraction of their former range when Europeans first reached America—perhaps because of the loss of the great prehistoric herds that formerly roamed the continent.

California condors mature and reproduce slowly. They don't breed until they are between six and eight years old, and the female lays only one egg every two years. If that egg is removed, however, she will lay a second or a third. With this in mind, scientists began to collect eggs for captive incubation. They also captured wild birds for captive breeding and, when the wild population dropped below 10 individuals, all of the remaining wild condors were brought into captivity in 1987.

Through the efforts of many organizations and individuals, reintroduction of California condors began in 1992. Today about 127 birds live in the wild. Though they are protected, mortality rates are still high from accidental death. Powerlines are a particular hazard for condors, and they fare better in areas where human population density is low.

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