California Condor
(Gymnogyps californianus)
Exactly how many California Condors once lived remains unknown, yet by 1981 the wild population numbered at just 21 birds. Throughout history the California Condor has been a dominant subject of mythology amongst Native Americans. Interestingly, the bird carries different meanings to each tribe. Some believed it killed humans and drank their blood, whilst others thought it occasionally ate the moon, thus causing the lunar cycle. Other tribes ritually killed condors for their feathers, from which ceremonial clothing was made. Such activities may have contributed to the condor’s decline. However, the biggest causes of their decline over the past century have been persecution (shooting, poisoning,), unintentional poisoning (lead shot) and loss of wildlands. Enormous efforts have been made to save the California Condor from extinction. The first successful breeding attempt from captive-reared condors occuredoccurred in 2003, in Arizona.  There were several breeding attempts in CA and AZ in 2001 and 2002, but not until 2003 did a chick successfully fledge from a nest cave in the wild.
Urgent Conservation Actions
Continue captive breeding and reintroduction whilst ensuring sustainability of wild populations. The leading cause of mortality in condors is lead poisoning from spent ammunition. The state of California recently passed a bill that will bans the use of lead-based ammo for hunting. This was asimplemented as a direct result of the effect lead ammo is having on condor populations. Arizona and Utah have both implemented education based, voluntary lead reduction programs and are offering free non-lead based ammunition for hunting within the condors range.
California, Northern Arizona, Southern Utah, United States and Baja California, Mexico.
Incredibly the skin of the face and neck can change colour, reflecting the bird’s emotional state.
Media from ARKive
Arkive image - Biologist holding a newly hatched California condor at a captive breeding facility
Arkive video - California condor - overview
Arkive video - California condor chick being assisted from its egg by a keeper
Arkive image - California condor chick with adult
Arkive image - California condor with chick at nest
Arkive video - Captive-bred California condor chicks being fed by a hand puppet
Arkive video - Captive-bred California condors being released into the wild
Arkive image - Immature male California condors
Arkive video - Reintroduced California condors, feeding on a provided carcass
Arkive image - Immature California condors
Arkive video - Reintroduced California condors, feeding on carcass
Arkive image - Immature California condor portrait
Arkive image - Immature male California condors interacting
Arkive video - California condors in soaring flight
Arkive image - Juvenlie captive-raised California condors, newly released
Arkive video - California condors in soaring flight
Arkive video - California condors sunning themselves with outstretched wings
Arkive image - Immature male California condor in flight
Arkive image - Immature male California condor in flight showing wing tags
Arkive video - California condor being mobbed by a raven
Evolutionary Distinctiveness
Order: Falconiformes
Family: Cathartidae
The California Condor is the only extant species of the genus Gymnogyps, with no accepted subspecies. During the Pleistocene Epoch (2.6 million to 11,700 years ago) this genus was widespread across the Americas. Fossil records give evidence of two other Gymnogyps species from the Pleistocene found in Peru and Florida. The range of today’s California Condor was much reduced during the Holocene (11,700 years ago to present), A a Late Pleistocene palaeosubspecies, Gymnogyps californianus amplus, existed over much of the bird’s historical range. This differed in size to today’s California Condor, weighing approximately the same as the larger, Andean Condor. With the onset of the last ice age, the population declined and evolved into the Gymnogyps californianus californianus of today.

The tree below shows the evolutionary relationships between this species and all other birds. The colours of the tree indicate EDGE scores with the red shades indicating the higher priority species; the bright red leaves correspond to the top 100 EDGE bird species. Further information on every species can be found by zooming in to its leaf on the tree.
110–140 cm
Weight: 8,000–14,000g
The largest of the North America land birds, its wings can stretch to almost three metres in length. It has uniformly black plumage except for large white areas on the underpart and on the upper coverts of the wings. It has a frill of black ruff feathers at the base of its neck. The neck and face are bare, with the skin changing colour between pink, orange and purple-red depending on the bird’s emotional state. In immature individuals the skin colour is grey/black and they lack the white on the underside of the wing.

Like most species of vulture, the California Condor mainly scavenges on the carcasses of large mammals, but are also known to feed on dead rodents and rabbits. The birds have to push their heads into rotting flesh, so the bare head has presumably evolved to lessen the chance of disease and infection. The species has been blamed and persecuted for taking lambs and small livestock; however there is no legitimate basis for this accusation.  There are no documented cases of California Condors killing any species of large mammal. California Condors nest in caves or large tree holes, but do not build nest structures within these cavities. They will roost on tree branches and along cliff ledges, often communally, although they do not nest communally and will defend their nesting area aggressively against other condors. They reproduce slowly, only reaching sexual maturity between the ages of six to eight years of age. Adults both taking take responsibility for rearing young. The female will lay a single egg every second year between the months of February and May. If this egg fails to hatch or is lost, the pair will lay a second egg, known as double brooding (or double clutching).

The condor is now found in remote and irregularly wooded hills and open-country scrubland with of rocky terrain. Breeding sites are rocky outcrops, the cavities of large trees, or cracks in the cliffs.
Historically the species had a large range down the West coast of North America from British Columbia in Canada all the way down to Baja California. However, by 1937 the range had contracted to California only. To ensure the survival of the species, in 1987 all the remaining wild birds were placed in a captive breeding programme.
Population Estimate
Total world population is 419 birds (roughly half are in the wild)
Population Trend

Critically Endangered


The California Condor is one of the most severely threatened bird species on the planet. The number one threat and leading cause of mortality to condor populations is lead poisoning from spent ammunition. Lead-based rifle ammunition fragments into hundreds of almost microscopic pieces as it passes through an animal.  Many of these fragments are concentrated in what is called the gut pile – the heart, lungs, intestines and other organs that hunters leave behind in the field.  These gut piles are an important food source for condors, but are also poisoning birds in the population due to the presence of these lead fragments. Illegal egg collection has also contributed to the decline in numbers. In recent years shooting has occurred to a lesser extent, but still remains a threat to released birds. The long-term success of reintroduced populations is jeopardised by exposure to lead from spent ammunition. The federal government in America is planning to phase out the use of lead in the United States but this will not take effect until 2019. This could not come soon enough as samples collected between 2004 and 2009 showed that almost 30% of condors are suffering the effects of lead in their bodies with levels in Arizona/Utah likely much higher. There is strong evidence that the deaths of some condors was caused by the consumption of discarded glass, wires and plastics. California Condors have also been killed through collisions with power lines. The survival of the wild populations is still dependent on the frequent recapture and treatment of birds for lead contamination.

Conservation Underway
This species is listed in CITES Appendix I and II. In 1987 the few remaining wild condors were brought into captivity where they entered into a breeding programme managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service with many partner organisations. Over the years, captive breeding has become increasingly more successful, with the annual hatch now averaging about 25-30 chicks. Breeding pairs have been carefully selected to produce the greatest genetic diversity within the population. Whilst in captivity, birds are trained to avoid humans and powerlines. The reintroduction of California Condors began in 1992, with a total of 381 individuals released by 2010. The use of lead bullets within the species range in California was banned in 2007, however levels of compliance with this law are unknown. Safe substitute bullets have become more widely available since this ban was implemented. Public awareness campaigns have helped to reduce persecution of the species.
Conservation Proposed
Continue implementation of the next stages in the recovery plan. Actions include the maintenance of two distinct populations that are breeding successfully. Locate new sites for reintroduction in Northern California and Oregon. Facilitate successful breeding in the captive-bred population. Extend the reach of awareness raising-programmes to new audiences. Make safe non-lead ammunition available to all hunters in the area and lobby government to ensure laws are passed regarding the use of lead ammunition.
BirdLife International (2013) Species factsheet: Gymnogyps californianus. Downloaded from www.birdlife.org on 10/07/2013

Cade, T. J. (2007). Exposure of California Condors to lead from spent ammunition. Journal of Wildlife Management 71(7): 2125-2133.

Collar, N. J., Gonzaga, L. P., Krabbe, N., Madroño Nieto, A., Naranjo, L. G., Parker, T. A. and Wege, D. C. (1992). Threatened birds of the Americas: the ICBP/IUCN Red Data Book. International Council for Bird Preservation, Cambridge, U.K.

Emslie, S. D. (1987). Age and diet of fossil California condors in Grand Canyon, Arizona. Science, 237(4816), 768-770.

Hildegarde, H. (1947). A preliminary survey of trends in avian evolution from Pleistocene to recent time. Condor 49(1): 10-13

Hildegarde, H. (1962). Bird remains from a prehistoric cave deposit in Grant County, New Mexico. Condor 64(3): 241-242

Hunt, W. G., Parish, C.N., Farry, S.C., Lord, T. G. and Sieg, R. (2007). Movements of introduced California Condors in Arizona in relation to lead exposure. In: Mee, A; Hall, LS; Grantham, J (ed.), California Condors in the 21st century, pp. 79-96. American Ornithologists Union, McLean, VA, U.S.A.

Kiff, L. F., Mesta, R. I., and Wallace, M. P. (1996). Recovery plan for the California condor. The Service.

Mee, A., Rideout, B. A., Hamber, J. A., Todd, J. N.,; Austin, G., Clark, M. and Wallace, M. P. (2007). Junk ingestion and nestling mortality in a reintroduced population of California Condors Gymnogyps californianus. Bird Conservation International 17(2): 1-13.

Nielsen, J. (2006). Condor: To the Brink and Back. The Life and Times of One Giant Bird. Harper Perennial, New York.

Toone, W. D., and Wallace, M. P. (1994). The extinction in the wild and reintroduction of the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus). In Creative conservation (pp. 411-419). Springer Netherlands.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (1996) California Condor Recovery Plan. Third Revision. Portland Oregon 62pp.

Wallace, M. and Toone, W. (1992). Captive management for the long term survival of the California Condor. In Wildlife 2001: Populations (pp. 766-774). Springer Netherlands.

Wallace, M. (2005). Re-introduction of the California Condor to Baja California, Mexico. Re-introduction News 24: 27-28.

Walters, J. R., Derrickson, S. R., Fry, D. M., Haig, S. M., Marzluff, J. M., and Wunderle Jr, J. M. (2010). Status of the California condor (Gymnogyps Californianus) and efforts to achieve its recovery. The Auk, 127(4), 969-1001
Text compiled by Michelle Harrison. Factchecked by David Wilcove and Matthew Podolsky.

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