It has the largest wingspan of any North American bird, and it became extinct in the wild in 1987. The California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) is still around only because of the efforts of many people.
The California condor was becoming extinct because of loss of habitat, poaching, and poisoning from lead bullets in the carrion they eat. They are vultures, and they feed on the carcasses of dead animals. When people would shoot animals and leave them on the ground, the condors would eat them and ingest the lead. They would also raid garbage where they would swallow plastic and other toxins. Encounters with power lines also caused the death of some condors. The last few California condors in the wild were captured and bred in California zoos to preserve the species.
As their numbers increased, the condors were reintroduced into the wild beginning in 1991. Today there are still fewer than 500 living in the wild and in captivity. California condors mate for life, but the female lays only one egg every other year. Fortunately, these birds can live for 60 years. In the wild, they live in the Grand Canyon area of northern Arizona, in Zion Canyon in southern Utah, northern Baja California, and the coastal mountains of central and southern California. They are still among the world’s rarest birds.
California condors are black except for white patches or bands under the wings which have a wingspan of 10 feet (3 m). Every California condor today has tracking tags on its wings to monitor them and ensure their survival. At the base of their necks, they have a frill of feathers. As with other vultures, their head is bald because they dig into animal carcasses and feathers on their heads would become matted with blood. The skin of their heads can flush with different colors, and that seems to be a way of communicating. They don’t have vocal organs as most birds do. They make hissing or grunting sounds that can only be heard at short distances. The talons of a bird of prey are sharp for capturing animals, but California condors are scavengers with blunt talons better suited for walking than for gripping.
In flight, California condors soar gracefully for long distances without flapping their wings. They prefer to roost on cliffs and high places where they can take off with very little wing movement. They use the rising warm air of thermals to keep themselves aloft. They don’t have a sense of smell, and that’s probably good since they stick their noses into rotten animal carcasses. They find their meals by looking for other, smaller scavengers such as eagles and smaller vultures. They sometimes go days without eating and then they gorge themselves.
Millions of dollars and many hours of work by professionals and volunteers have saved the California condor. However, it is still critically endangered. God has given humans the responsibility of caring for the Earth and its creatures.
© Roland Earnst
Photo Credit: © bigstockphoto.com/Andriy Blokhin