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Adult California Condor soaring at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge

By Dessi Sieburth

The California Condor, the largest land bird in North America, once filled the skies throughout Western North America. Today, however, this magnificent bird is critically endangered and has a very limited range. The California Condor is a distinctive bird with a huge wingspan of up to 9.5 feet, allowing it to fly up to 150 miles in a day. The adults are almost entirely black with a pinkish, featherless head. They also have a large white “triangle” on the leading edge of the wing. Juveniles have a dark, featherless head with a less distinct “triangle” on the wing. The rate of maturation to adult-like plumage varies among condors, with some individuals not attaining adult plumage until they are eight years old. California Condors can weigh up to 20 pounds, nearly twice the weight of a Bald Eagle. They are generally silent, but they can make hissing noises when defending a nest site.

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Adult California Condor at the Santa Barbara Zoo

Like other vultures, California Condors are scavengers, primarily feeding on the dead carcasses of mammals. They primarily eat larger mammals, such as horses, cows, and deer, but have been known to feed on California Ground Squirrels and skunks. Historically, when condors were common in coastal areas, they fed on the washed-up carcasses of whales and sea lions. Today, the largest percentage of a condor’s diet is cattle.

     California Condors reproduce at a very slow rate. The adults only lay one egg in a single brood, and they typically breed only every other year. Condors need ledges or small caves in cliff faces to nest. The eggs are a dirty white and unmarked. Females incubate the eggs for about 60 days, and the chicks typically fledge when they are 5.5 months old. The fledglings are still dependent on their parents for another 6 months.

     Historically, condors were found throughout western North America, from British Columbia to Baja California. The last record in Washington was in 1897, and the last record in Oregon was in 1904. Condors were extirpated from Baja California by 1930. In 1987, the condor population was down to only 27 individuals. Lead poisoning, hunting, and DDT were the biggest factors in the decline of the condor population. They were shot for sport and for museum exhibits. In the mid-1940s, farmers began to use the pesticide DDT, which damaged condor’s egg shells, causing the eggs to break before the young were ready to hatch. A program to save the California Condor from extinction was started by biologists who captured all of the remaining condors and sent them to breeding facilities in the Los Angeles and San Diego Zoos. The captive breeding program was very successful, and in 1994, two California Condors born in captivity were released into the wild. This success was due to the fact that condors are relatively easy to breed in captivity. The first breeding in the wild was documented in 2006 at Big Sur. As of 2016, there were 466 California Condors. The wild population was at 276 birds with 166 of them in California. The captive population was at 190 birds.

     Today, the range of the California Condor is still very limited. In California, they range south to Ventura County and north to Pinnacles National Park in San Benito. There are also isolated populations that have been reintroduced to the Grand Canyon, Arizona, Zion National Park, Utah, and Sierra de San Pedro Martir in northern Baja California. Condors are no longer seen regularly in Los Angeles County but can be encountered as vagrants in the northwestern portion of the county near Pyramid and Quail Lake. The closest locations for the public to observe Condors are at the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge sign off Hudson Ranch Road in Kern County, and Lake Piru in Ventura County.

    Historically, California Condors were regular breeders in Los Angeles County. In 1908, Condors were reported breeding in Eaton Canyon above Altadena. In 1983, biologists found condor egg shell fragments of the 1908 Eaton Canyon nest. Here is an excerpt from an article from the 1992 Newsletter of the Eaton Canyon Nature Center:

“In 1908 the last nesting California Condors in the San Gabriel Mountains were in the rugged parts of upper Eaton Canyon.  In June 1983, Mickey Long, Pat Sullivan and members of the Condor Recovery Team hiked to the site and, with photographs, located the nest cavity across the canyon.  Team members climbed down to the nest cavity and carefully collected eggshell fragments from the cavity floor which they later confirmed were from condors.  Among California Condor eggshells from central and southern California, the highest levels of lead were found in the oldest sample – fragments from the historic condor nest in rugged Eaton Canyon in the San Gabriel Mountains – more than 70 years after the nest cavity was last used.”

    California Condors were also breeding in Beartrap Canyon near Pyramid Lake. Nesting at Trough Canyon in the Simi Valley continued through the 1970s, constituting the last known breeding record in the county.

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Adult California Condor at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge

    Despite a large increase in the condor population, the species is far from safe from extinction. These condors still face many threats. Today, the primary threat to condors is lead poisoning. Since condors are scavengers, they often eat dead animals shot by hunters. If the condors eat a carcass shot with a lead bullet, they will get lead poisoning. As the lead accumulates in their system, they will get sick and die. Lead is a neurotoxin and affects the condor’s ability to care for themselves and their young. Another major threat to condors is microtrash. Mircotrash refers to small pieces of trash such as bottlecaps, nails, and other small metal, glass, and plastic pieces. Condors often mistake microtrash for pieces of bone, which they feed to their young for calcium­­. The chicks are unable to digest microtrash, and it accumulates in their stomachs, often leading to death. In 2013, a bill aimed at protecting the California Condor, AB 711, was passed by governor Jerry Brown, banning hunting with lead ammunition in California. This bill will go into effect in 2019.

    There are several things that we can do to help these endangered birds. We can help them by adopting “No Trace” ethics, not leaving any trash behind when visiting wildlife habitat. We can also help by joining “Friends of California Condors Wild and Free,” who organize microtrash cleanups, outreach, and fundraising events. For more information, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. We can also help condors by encouraging hunters to use alternatives to lead ammunition, such as copper ammunition. For more information on lead-free hunting go to http://www.huntingwithnonlead.org/. Condor Watch is a community science project where you can identify the tags on the wings of condors and observe condor feeding behavior to spot signs of possible lead poisoning (https://www.condorwatch.org/). You can also record your condor observations and submit them into eBird (www.ebird.org). Finally, condors can be very curious, so it is important avoid feeding or approaching condors, as they need to stay wild and not become habituated to humans.

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California Condor at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge

If you would like to learn more about how to help birds, you can visit my website: Protecting our Birds (http://protectingourbirds.my-free.website). All photos taken by Dessi Sieburth. Thanks to Susan Gilliland and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for providing me with opportunities to learn about California Condors.

References:

Allen, L.W., K. L. Garrett, and M.C. Wimer (1994). Los Angeles County Breeding Bird Atlas. Los Angeles, California: Los Angeles Audubon Society. Print.

Arnold, C. (1993). On the Brink of Extinction- the California Condor, San Diego Harcourt Brace & Company

Finley, W. L. (1906). Life history of the California Condor. I. Finding a condor’s nest, Condor 8:135–142.

Snyder, N. F. R. and J. Schmitt (2002). California condor (Gymnogyps californianus). In Poole, A. and F. Gill, editors. No. 610. The birds of North America. The Birds of North America, Inc.. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.