California Condor

The largest North American landbird, which soars on an astonishing nine and a half foot wingspan, is truly a spectacular sight to behold. And yet, the California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) hasn’t graced Oregon skies in over a century. Although condors are incredibly well adapted to a scavenging lifestyle, exposure to lead nearly led to their extinction.

The critically endangered condor—known as Prey-go-neesh to the Yurok Tribe—once numbered in the thousands and ranged from British Columbia to Baja, Mexico. By 1982, the condor was nearly extinct. The wild population was down to 22 free-flying birds when the last of the wild condors were brought into captivity to initiate a captive breeding program. Since then, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s condor breeding and release program has dramatically improved the outlook for this magnificent bird. Today there are over 465 birds in the population, over half of which are free-flying.

A photo of three California Condors standing on a rock.
California Condors, photo by Bureau of Land Management

History of Recovery and Threats to the California Condor

While significant progress has been made to increase their numbers, the story of the condor continues to illustrate the catastrophic impact that lead exposure can have on wildlife, particularly for those with a slow reproduction rate. Condors are long-lived birds that don’t reach sexual maturity for six to eight years, lay only one egg per nesting cycle, and may only breed every other year.

As vultures that feed only carrion, Condors often scavenge caracasses and gut piles left in the field by hunters. Lead ammunition can contaminate a carcass with a comet trail of lead dust and particles that can spread as far as 17 inches from the wound channel. Ingestion of that lead is lethal to a California Condor, as well as to Bald and Golden Eagles, hawks, ravens, and other scavengers. Research shows a seasonal spike in blood lead levels in scavenger birds that is correlated with hunting season.

Today there is a collective effort to raise awareness about the impacts of lead toxicity on scavenging birds, and to encourage hunters to switch to use of non-lead ammunition, which shows excellent ballistic performance.

Plans are underway to reintroduce condors to the Bald Hills of Redwood National Park in Northern California. The Yurok Tribe, together with the National Park Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, has spent nearly a decade planning for the return of this culturally and ecologically significant species to Yurok Ancestral Territory. This exciting news portends the return of California Condors to Oregon skies, and challenges us to ensure adequate protection of condors from lead in Oregon.

California Condor, photo by USFWS

Bird Alliance of Oregon’s Work to Protect the California Condor

  • Tracking Yurok Tribe and National Park Service efforts to develop a Condor release facility in Redwood National Park
  • Advocating for strong protections for the Redwood National Park population of California Condors
  • Supporting education and awareness-raising about the impacts of lead on scavenging birds to help reduce wildlife exposure to lead
  • Report preparation and ongoing research on the impact of lead contamination in Hawks, Eagles, Turkey Vultures and Common Ravens in Oregon

Natural History: California Condor

Name: California Condor

Scientific Name: Gymnogyps californianus

Conservation Status: Critically Endangered

Habitat:  Historically, California Condors occupied a wide variety of habitats including grasslands, forests, desert rimrock, and coastal beaches. 

Food: Obligate carrion-eaters. Condors feed primarily on large mammal carcasses, including cattle and sea lions, though smaller mammal carrion is also an important part of their diet, and occasional feeding on the remains of both reptiles and birds has been documented. 

Nest Type: Cliff ledges, caves or large crevices, or hollows in large diameter tree snags.  California Condor pairs often maintain more than one nest site within their territory and they will alternate between these nests year to year. They typically nest every other year, though occasionally will reproduce annually.

Behavior: California Condors maintain strong pair bonds, both socially and sexually, throughout their lives. Same-sex partnerships or chick-rearing trios have also been documented. They are territorial at the nest, but feed communally at carcasses according to a strict social hierarchy. In their search for food, they may fly up to 150 miles per day.

Description: A giant vulture with a wingspan of about 9.5 feet and a mass of up to 26 pounds.  The adult’s naked head and neck are a colorful palate of yellow, orange and red hues.  Immature California Condors have dark heads and necks, and don’t reach maturity for 6-8 years. A collar of feathers around a condor’s neck can be raised for warmth in cold weather. In flight, California Condors show long, triangular white wing patches on dark wings.

Fun Facts!

  • Today there are approximately 561 California Condors in the world, nearly 350 of those free-flying. That’s an impressive increase from a low of 23 free-flying birds in 1982.
  • Bird Alliance of Oregon’s first president, William Finley, led an expedition to California in 1906 that provided the first photos documenting condor chick development and getting the plight of this bird into the national consciousness.
  • Condors lack a syrinx (a bird’s voice box), so their vocalizations are limited to occasional grunts and hisses.
  • Scientists have documented rare occasions of parthenogenesis (birth from an unfertilized egg) in California Condors in captivity!
  • Because of ongoing threats on the landscape, the average life expectancy of a free-flying California Condor is far below the potential life span for this species, estimated to be at least 60 years. Lead toxicity is the primary threat to condor recovery, which results from birds feeding on carcasses and gut piles laden with lead ammunition. Let’s get the lead out!