The California condor is classified as a New World Vulture and, with a wingspan of 8-10 feet in breadth, is the largest North American land bird. The plumage of an adult California condor is entirely black, with the exception of a white stripe located on the underside of each wing. Juvenile birds, meanwhile, are of a darker brown color. Like other species of vulture, the California condor’s head is bare of feathers, and made dangerous by an imposing, hooked beak. Its feet are generally greyish in color and, unlike other vultures, its talons are relatively blunt, and therefore more suited for walking than hunting.
As a scavenger, the staple of the California condor’s diet is 'carrion', the decaying flesh of already dead animals. Its preferred meals come from large, terrestrial mammals, such as goats, cattle, pigs, horses, and even wild cougars and bears. That said, they will occasionally feed on the carcasses of smaller mammals, such as rabbits, foxes, and coyotes. Furthermore, if their location allows for it, even marine mammals like whales and sea lions can feature on the condor menu. Because they don’t have a sense of smell, California condors locate their food by eyeing the skies for other scavengers, such as eagles and other species of vultures.
Habitat and Range
In the past, California condors thrived all over the American Southwest as well as along the West Coast of the US. Today, however, they are considered critically endangered, and their range has been reduced to several small pockets in California, Arizona, and Utah. In these regions, condors can be found in rocky shrublands and coniferous forests. Their nests, meanwhile, are typically built atop trees, or in the faces of large cliffs. Currently, there are two sanctuaries dedicated to the California condor’s recovery. These are The Sisquoc Condor Sanctuary in the San Rafael Wilderness, and the Sespe Condor Sanctuary in the Los Padres National Forest, in the California counties of Santa Barbara and Ventura, respectively.
California condors spend most of their time flying in search of food. While flying, they’ve been known to reach almost 60 miles per hour, and to achieve dizzying altitudes of more than 15,000 feet. The birds have a complex social structure, often operating in groups, wherein a pecking order and chain of command is established through body language and a range of hisses and grunts. This pecking order is most visible when they feed, as the dominant birds will eat before their inferiors. Outside of humans, the birds have very few natural threats. That said, they have nevertheless been known to fight, and be killed by, golden eagles in the vicinity of a disputed source of carrion.
California condors typically reach sexual maturity at the age of six years. At this point, they will begin searching for a mate. To attract a mate, male condors will put on a show by turning their heads red and puffing up their feathers. Once a female has been wooed by this display, a pair will become mates for life. The pair will construct a nest atop a tree or cliff, where the female will lay a single egg every second year, between January and April. 53-60 days later, the egg will hatch. The young bird will roost with its parents for up to two years, before setting out on its own. At this point, the parents will usually create a new nest and raise another young bird. This can go on for the majority of the bird’s lifespan, which can last up to an incredible 60 years.