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California Condor

Natural History

California Condors are vultures and as adults are almost entirely black in color with a few patches of white, including distinguishing triangular patches on the underside of their wings. Except for a few feathers, their heads and necks are mostly bare. Their wing span can reach more than nine feet from tip to tip, which they use to soar on wind currents and thermals. They can reach speeds of up to 55 miles per hour (88 kilometers per hour), and they can climb to altitudes of 15,000 feet (4,600 meters). Like vultures, they are scavengers, but instead of relying on their sense of smell they watch for other scavengers feeding on carrion. Condors prefer large dead animals like deer, cattle, and sheep, but they also eat rodents, rabbits, and even fish. Their bald heads are perfectly designed to keep rotting food from sticking to them as they eat.

The California Condor at right was photographed in the San Diego Zoo.

Normally, condors breed once every two years, producing only one egg which the female lays between January and March on a rocky cliff (no nest is constructed for the egg). The male and female both take turns incubating the egg. The chick hatches almost two months later and both parents will share in feeding the chick until it learns to find its own food, which could take a year. The birds are capable of reaching up to 60 years of age in the wild.

California Condors are one of the most endangered birds on the planet. In 1982, there were fewer than 25 left in the wild due to factors including loss of habitat, shootings, pesticide residue, lead poisoning, and collisions with power lines. Today, their numbers have increased to approximately 200 through captive breeding. One of the release sites for the birds is in the Vermillion Cliffs area of Arizona near the Grand Canyon.

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