Status: Critically endangered
Known as: California Condor.
Estimated numbers left in the wild: 226.
A huge vulture, the California condor is 1.1 to 1.4 meters long, with a wingspan up to 3 meters. Funereal black feathers cover a body that weighs from 8 to 14 kilograms. Their bare heads and necks are pink or yellow, sometimes almost orange. They are powerful fliers who can ascend as high as 4,600 meters, and whose maximum flying speed is around 90 kilometres per hour. Nevertheless, they usually fly more slowly, and prefer to soar on thermals to conserve energy.
Diet: California condors are meat-eaters who obtain almost all their nutrition from carrion. Lacking a sense of smell, they zero in on corpses by observing other scavenger birds. Larger corpses, such as those of deer, cattle, sheep, cougars, and bears are favoured over smaller ones, but hunger often forces the condor to accept the remains of jackrabbits, coyotes, and even salmon. Condors chase other scavengers away from a body, though they cannot intimidate bears or bald eagles. Bald eagles, in fact, will attack a condor that attempts to take a corpse from them.
Breeding: Condors are long-lived, with 60 years being an average wild lifespan in the event that the bird is not shot or poisoned first. Their reproduction is correspondingly slow – the bird does not reach sexual maturity until the age of 6. Chicks take around two months to hatch, and only one egg is laid at a time, at intervals of two years. They are able to fly in six months, though they usually stay with their parents until the next egg is laid.
Location: The California condor is found only on the West Coast of the United States but has been reintroduced in Mexico. Most are found in the states of California, Utah, and Arizona. The condor prefers oak savannah, coniferous forest, rocky scrubland, and are almost always found at sites where either cliffs or large trees are available for nesting.
Threats: Many factors have contributed to the perilous state of the California condor today, most of them coming directly from humans. Humans have shot and persecuted these large birds for decades, often impelled by appalling ignorance – ranchers seeing the birds feeding on dead cattle believed that the condors somehow killed their animals, rather than being scavengers. The condor was already quite rare when Europeans arrived, however, perhaps due to lack of Pleistocene mega fauna to provide an abundant food source.
Though shooting has declined (sadly, it has not disappeared, since some people still believe that condor kill sheep and cattle), lead poisoning has become the primary threat to the species. Hunters shoot animals with lead bullets or shot; when the condors eat the carcasses, they also eat the lead and eventually die, since the metal builds up to lethal levels during their long lifespan. DDT poisoning, habitat destruction, and collisions with power lines are also dangers.
Conservation efforts: Various zoos and parks, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, have made massive efforts to restore the condor, which have been somewhat successful. The low point of California condor population was 22 birds – today there are 10 times as many in the wild and nearly as many living in captivity.
Reintroduction of condors continues and efforts to replace lead bullets with safer ammunition are important ongoing conservation methods.
The Peregrine Fund
The Peregrine Fund aims to establish self-sustaining wild populations of California Condors through breeding programmes and releasing them back to the wild.