The Critically Endangered California condor is a member of the New World vulture family (Cathartidae), and has an impressive wingspan of just less than three metres (5). The featherless head and neck are a reddish-orange colour; a few black feathers sprout from the head and there is a ruff of fine, glossy black feathers around the neck (6). The neck has an inflatable pouch, which is important in courtship (7). The plumage is black in colour with large white patches under each wing (6). Males and females are indistinguishable by size or plumage (8). Juveniles are grey and adult feathers do not replace this down until the age of five to seven months (6). Sub-adults retain a grey head until they reach maturity at five to seven years of age, when they acquire the full colouration of an adult (6).
Soaring over large distances on their immense wings, condors search by sight for the carrion upon which they feed (5). Adults in captivity begin to breed at six to eight years of age (9), and pairs mate for life (5), producing one chick every two years (10). California condors, like many New World vultures engage in an unusual behaviour known as 'urohydrosis' in order to keep cool. This involves urinating on their own legs, which takes heat away from their body through evaporation; the cooled blood is then circulated back through the body (11).
The California condor was originally widespread throughout North America, but by the 1800s they were restricted to the west coast, from British Columbia to Baja California. In the 1970s only 30 individuals remained, all of which were confined to a small area of California (6), and on Easter Sunday 1987 the species became Extinct in the Wild when the last individual was taken into captivity (8). An extensive conservation effort has been undertaken to re-introduce captive-bred condors back into the wilds of California, Arizona and Mexico.
Native to a wide variety of North American habitats, the condor is historically restricted to the Pacific coastline and inland to the Sierras (8). Inhabits rocky, open scrubland, coniferous forest and oak savannah (3). Nests have been recorded in rock cavities as well as in large Sequoia trees (3).
The original decline of the California condor followed the extinction of many large mammals in North America (5). Despite legal protection since 1900 (10), the 20th Century decline was due to human induced pressures such as trapping, shooting, egg collecting and lead poisoning following ingestion of carcasses killed with lead shot (2). Unfortunately lead poisoning still occurs regularly and remains the condor's greatest threat; other current threats include collisions with power lines, shooting, and both deliberate and accidental poisoning (12).
Towards the end of the 1980s, with only eight individuals left in the wild, it was clear that the extinction of this bird was imminent. The remaining wild individuals were taken into captivity and incorporated into an intensive conservation breeding programme run by San Diego Wild Animal Park, Los Angeles Zoo and The Peregrine Fund (13). A variety of techniques were used in the breeding programme including double-clutching and the rearing of chicks with hand puppets, and in 1992 the first condors were released back into the wild (14). Numerous hurdles have had to be overcome, not least teaching captive birds to avoid power cables, but in the spring of 2002 the first wild condor chick for two decades hatched (13). The rescue of the Californian condor is an ongoing conservation programme but the successes so far have been inspiring and the population continues to climb (8); today the condor can once again be seen soaring over the rocky Californian landscape.
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