California condor characteristics, habitat, reproduction

David Holt
California condor characteristics, habitat, reproduction

The California condor or Californian condorGymnogyps californianus) is a bird of prey that belongs to the Cathartidae family. Its most distinctive feature is the orange coloration on its neck and head. This is because, in those areas, the animal lacks plumage, so the skin is exposed.

These tones intensify during the reproductive season and when the animal is stressed. These bright colors contrast with the deep black plumage that covers the body.

Gymnogyps californianus

When it unfolds its wings, in the lower part you can see triangular white spots that characterize this bird. As for their legs, they are gray and have blunt and straight claws. Because of this, they are not adapted to grab hold of prey or to be used for defense..

It currently lives in southern California. However, the populations of the Californian condor decreased drastically during the 20th century, due to its poaching..

To counteract this situation, a conservation plan was implemented, where all the existing wild species were captured. Thus, since 1991 the Gymnogyps californianus it was reintroduced into its natural habitat. However, it is still considered by the IUCN as critically endangered..

Article index

  • 1 Characteristics of the California condor
    • 1.1 Size
    • 1.2 Peak
    • 1.3 Crop
    • 1.4 Air bags
    • 1.5 Coloring
    • 1.6 Legs
    • 1.7 Flight
  • 2 Behavior
  • 3 Taxonomy and subspecies
  • 4 Habitat and distribution
    • 4.1 Habitat
    • 4.2 Nesting sites
    • 4.3 Feeding area
    • 4.4 Rest areas
  • 5 Conservation status
    • 5.1 Threats
    • 5.2 Actions
  • 6 Playback
    • 6.1 The breeding
  • 7 Food
    • 7.1 Species
  • 8 References¬†

Characteristics of the California condor


In general, the female is usually a little smaller than the male. The total length can be between 109 and 140 centimeters and the weight of the bird ranges from 7 to 14 kilograms. As for the wingspan, it measures from 2.49 to 3 meters.


The beak of the Californian condor is sharp, long and very powerful. This animal uses it to pierce the skin of dead animals and tear their flesh. In addition, it uses it to eliminate the foliage of the trees, thus creating a better resting place..

Also, you can manipulate the rocks, branches and other objects found in the caves, thus improving the nesting area..


The crop is a bag that is located under the throat. In this, food is stored and partially digested, before entering the stomach. Externally it can be visualized as a lump in the upper chest area.

Air sacks

The Gymnogyps californianus it has air sacs, located under the skin, in the neck and throat area. When the California condor is excited or agitated, it inflates these sacks. Thus, it looks bigger, impressing the attacker.


California condor (Gymnogyps californianus). Source: Paris region french Fish and Wildlife Service from Courbevoie, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This species is distinguished by having an orange-red neck and head. This coloration is due to the fact that in those areas the skin is bare, except for a few dark feathers that it has on the forehead. A striking black feather necklace stands out around the neck

In relation to the body, it is feathered in black. On the underside of the wings it has white triangular spots, which characterize this species. As for the legs, they are gray and the beak is ivory..

The young of this species have a gray down, which is replaced by the adult plumage when they are 5 to 7 months old. It may even keep a dark gray head for about 4 to 5 years..


The Californian condor has a special feature on the toes, the middle one is elongated and the rear is underdeveloped. In addition, the claws are blunt and straight, so they are more adapted to walking than to grab things with these.

This particularity is more similar to the limbs of storks than to those of Old World vultures or birds of prey, which use their legs as organs of apprehension or defense..


During the flight, the movements of the California condor are graceful. At the moment of taking off from the ground, it vigorously flaps its wings, but when they have taken height, it glides. So you can travel long distances, without the need to flap your wings.

Although it can fly at a speed of 90 km / h, it prefers to perch in a high place and launch itself, moving without any significant flapping effort. Thus, this bird frequently flies near rocky cliffs, where it uses thermal currents to stay aloft..


The California condor is a non-migratory bird, however, it usually travels large areas of land in search of food. After this, it always returns to the same resting or nesting place.

During the day, it spends long hours resting, either in the nest or in the sun. This is usually done in the early hours of the morning, for which it spreads its wings.

It also tends to groom itself with some regularity. The California condor keeps its plumage neatly well groomed. After feeding, gently clean his head and neck.

Also, you can get close to water sources and use it to clean the dust from their shiny plumage. If no bodies of water are available, it will cleanse your body by rubbing it with rocks, grasses, or tree branches..

Taxonomy and subspecies

-Animal Kingdom.

-Subkingdom: Bilateria.

-Phylum; Chordate.

-Subfilum: Vertebrate.

-Infrafilum: Gnathostomata.

-Superclass: Tetrapoda.

-Class: Birds.

-Order: Accipitriformes.

-Family: Cathartidae.

-Genus: Gymnogyps.

-Species: Gymnogyps californianus.

Habitat and distribution

Previously, the California condor was distributed throughout much of western North America, from British Columbia to northern Baja California and from the eastern region to the state of Florida. Until 1700, this species lived in Arizona, New Mexico and west Texas.

In 1800, the populations of the Gymnogyps californianus they suffered another serious decline, ceasing to exist in the Pacific coast region. In the early 1930s they became extinct in the territories located north of Baja California.

The last group was sighted in 1985, in the Coastal Ranges of California. Protectionist organizations, together with state and national entities, captured this group and transferred it to breeding centers, located in Los Angeles and San Diego..

Currently, the Californian condor is reintroduced into its natural habitat, which is why it is located in the southern California desert. Thus, they live in the Los Padres National Forest, located in southern and central California, and in the Grand Canyon National Park, in Arizona..


California condor (Gymnogyps californianus). Source: Jim Bahn, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Californian condor lives in coniferous forests, rocky thickets, and oak savannas. Also, it inhabits desert biomes or dune chaparrals. It is often found in areas near cliffs or where there are tall trees, which it uses as nesting sites..

Thus, this species is found in steep canyons and mountain forests, at an altitude of approximately 300 to 2,700 meters above sea level. Regarding nesting, they occur between 610 and 1,372 meters above sea level..

Although morphologically it does not have the necessary adaptations to travel long distances, experts point out that it can travel distances of up to 250 kilometers, in search of carrion. However, after the trip, they return to the nest.

There are two sanctuaries where this bird is protected from disturbances mainly caused by man. One of these in the Sanctuary of the Condor Sisquoc, located in the San Rafael desert and the other is the Sanctuary of the Condor Sespe, located in the Los Padres National Forest..

Nesting sites

The Gymnogyps californianus builds its nests in coniferous and chaparral forests, preferring the giant Sequoia trees (Sequoiadendron giganteum). Also, it usually nests in species such as Quercus spp., Garrya spp., Adenostoma fasciculatum Y Toxicodendron diversilobum.

These areas are steep with dense scrub that line the cliffs. Nests are often located in natural caves and crevices.

Feeding area

Regarding the feeding area, it includes oak savanna or grasslands, with small spaces dominated by annual grasses. In other regions the open areas are almost devoid of vegetation, while in others there are scattered oak and shrub Juglans californica.

The California condor requires open ground to feed because it needs space to soar and to easily access prey. The vast majority of the time these areas are at lower elevations than the breeding habitat, although they may overlap.

Rest areas

The Gymnogyps californianus It requires, within its home range, places to rest and to protect itself from inclement weather. Such refuges are generally found near feeding and breeding areas, in tall trees or on cliffs..

State of conservation

An adult California condor with its chick in a nest near Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge, California, United States. Source: Joseph Brandt, Pacific Southwest Region U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Sacramento, USA, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

By the late 1970s, populations of the Californian condor had been drastically reduced. In subsequent years the species continued to decline, which led to the immediate intervention of the competent agencies.

The last of this species were caught in 1987 and included in a successful captive breeding program. In this way, in 1991 the first two condors were introduced, in a sanctuary in California..

From that date until now, the reintegrations have continued. However, the IUCN believes that the California condor is still in a critical state of extinction.


The drastic population decline is mainly attributed to lead poisoning. This occurs because the bird consumes meat from animals that have been shot dead, so it accidentally ingests small pieces of lead bullets.

Thus, a study carried out in California, where samples corresponding to the period 2004-2009 were used, indicates that approximately one third of condors experience toxicological effects related to lead ammunition..

California Condor near South Rim Village, Grand Canyon

The population that lives along the Californian coast of the central Pacific Ocean suffers from a serious problem with their eggs. The peel shows a reduction in its thickness, due to the effects of the pesticide DDT.

The consumption of this highly toxic substance comes from the ingestion of marine mammal carcasses, which had been exposed to this pesticide..

Another factor that threatens the Gymnogyps californianus it is the ingestion of poisoned bait meat. This is used by ranchers to control the coyote population, but accidentally, it is consumed by this raptor.


The Californian condor is included in Appendices I and II of CITES. Likewise, there is a large-scale program related to captive breeding and reintroduction, administered by various national and international institutions..


The California condor reaches sexual maturity when they are around 6 years old, however they often do not reproduce until they are 8 years old. The start of the mating and nesting site selection period is usually in December, although some pairs do so in late spring..

The male of this species performs courtship displays to capture the female's attention. Thus, it spreads its wings, while moving its head. Once the female accepts the male's claims, they form a life partner.

The preferred nesting places are the cliffs, however, they can also do so between rocks or in the cavities of large trees, such as the California redwood (Sequoia sempervirens).

The female usually lays only one egg per season. This slow reproductive rate negatively influences the recovery of the species.

As for the egg, it is deposited in the nest between the months of February and the beginning of April. Regarding incubation, it lasts around 56 to 58 days and both the male and the female take turns caring for the egg..

The brood

Once the chick hatches, it grows quickly. Parents are in charge of bringing their food to them. Due to the characteristics of its claws, the California condor cannot carry food with them, as the vast majority of birds do. Therefore, it uses the crop to store the meat that it offers to its young..

In this kind of bag of skin, located inside the throat, the food is deposited and when the bird reaches the nest it regurgitates it. In this way, the chick is fed until it can fly alone, which happens between 6 and 7 months of life..

Once it flies, it remains in the nest with its parents for 1 year or more, while it learns to forage for itself and to live independently..


The Gymnogyps californianus It is an obligate scavenger, feeding exclusively on the carcasses of animals that other species have hunted. They generally prefer the carrion to be fresh, however, if necessary, they could consume it in an advanced state of decomposition.

Currently, this species feeds in savanna and open oak and grassland habitats. Also, it usually does it in coastal regions of central California. However, on a few occasions it has been sighted in more wooded areas, in search of its food..

To find their food they do not only use their smell, they usually locate it with the naked eye or by following other scavengers. The California condor can feed individually or in large groups, which perch on the dead animal..

In the case of forming a food group, there is a strict hierarchy. Dominant birds eat first, thus selectively picking up the favorite and most nutritious parts of the animal..

Regarding feeding behavior, it includes reconnaissance flights, flights around the carrion and long hours of waiting near the animal's corpse, either on a branch or on the ground. This is possibly done to monitor that other predators do not eat their food..


The Californian condor mainly feeds on the carcasses of large mammals, such as the mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), the pronghorn antelope (American antilocapra), elk de tule, goats, sheep, cows, pigs, coyotes and horses.

Also, it can feed on smaller mammals, such as ground squirrels (Spermophilus spp.) and hares (Lepus spp.) and cottontail rabbitsSylvilagus spp.). Those that live near the coasts usually eat meat from sea lions (Zalophus californianus), whales (Order Cetacea) and seals, among other marine species.

The bones of small mammals are a source of calcium, a very important mineral element in the production of eggs..


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  3. ITIS (2019) .Gymnogyps californianus. Recovered from
  4. Tesky, Julie L. (1994). Gymnogyps californianus. Fire Effects Information System. Recovered from
  5. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (2013). California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) 5-Year Review: Summary and Evaluation. Recovered from
  6. Finkelstein, M., Z. Kuspa, N. F. Snyder, and N. J. Schmitt (2015). California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus). The Birds of North America. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. Recovered from
  7. Jeffrey R. Walters, Scott R. Derrickson, D. Michael Fry, Susan M. Haig, John M. Marzluff, Joseph M. Wunderle Jr. (2010). Status of the California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) and Efforts to Achieve Its Recovery. Recovered from
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