California Condor (photo by Phil Armitage)

California Condor by Phil Armitage

     This California condor carries identifier tags on its wings, which allow researchers to keep track of individual birds and their locations throughout their lifespan.

     The California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) is a New World vulture, the largest North American land bird. This condor became extinct in the wild in 1987 (all remaining wild individuals were captured), but the species has been reintroduced to northern Arizona and southern Utah (including the Grand Canyon area and Zion National Park), the coastal mountains of central and southern California, and northern Baja California. Although other fossil members are known, it is the only surviving member of the genus Gymnogyps.

     The plumage is black with patches of white on the underside of the wings; the head is largely bald, with skin color ranging from gray on young birds to yellow and bright orange on breeding adults. Its huge 3 meter (9.8 ft) wingspan is the widest of any North American bird, and its weight of up to 12 kg (26 lb) nearly equals that of the Trumpeter Swan, the heaviest among native North American bird species. The condor is a scavenger and eats large amounts of carrion. It is one of the world's longest-living birds, with a lifespan of up to 60 years.

     Condor numbers dramatically declined in the 20th century due to poaching, lead poisoning, and habitat destruction.  A conservation plan was put in place by the United States government that led to the capture of all 22 remaining wild condors in 1987. These surviving birds were bred at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and the Los Angeles Zoo. Numbers rose through captive breeding and, beginning in 1991, condors were reintroduced into the wild. 

     The California Condor is one of the world's rarest bird species: as of May 2013, population counts put the number of known condors at 435, including 237 living in the wild and 198 in captivity. The condor is a significant bird to many Native American groups and plays an important role in several of their traditional legends. © Tanna Thornburg 2014