Today’s endangered species is one of the largest birds in the world; the California condor or Gymnogyps californianus. Gymnos is Greek for naked, because their heads are naked, gyps for vulture and californianus for their range which is California. However, 40,000 years ago, the California condor used to roam all over North America. By the way, condor comes from the Inca word cuntur which the Andean condors are named. Andean condors are California condor’s cousins and they are also critically endangered.
California condors are large. They are larger than a bald eagle. Body size is about 3.5 to 4.5 feet. Their wingspan is quite phenomenal. From wingtip to wingtip is a staggering 9 to 10 feet. Both male and female condors weigh in at about 18-31 pounds. You’d have to be quite strong to hold one of these beasties on your arm. When in flight, the California condor soars to dizzying heights of 15,000 feet where they glide. They can glide for hours without beating their wings and reach speed sup to 30-40 mph.
California condors are completely carnivorous. They’re actually scavengers which means they feast on the dead carcasses of large mammals like cattle, deer, pigs and even whales. They swallow the small bones of these animals in order to meet their calcium requirements. Like most vulture species, they are wary of humans so it’s pretty rare to see one snacking on roadkill. A lot of people believe they are able to smell death from far up above but they’re actually able to see way better than they can smell. They can consume as much as 5-7 percent of their body weight, sometimes more which allows them to go without eating for 2 to 3 days. At most, California condors can go a whole week without eating.
California condors usually nest in caves or natural cavities on cliffs and sometimes in trees such as the giant sequoias. Once a pair mates, they mate forever; they are very monogamous. The parents share nesting duties as well as bringing up offspring together. A condor pair only lays one egg at a time. It takes 2 months for it to hatch and then the young rely on their parents for a year or more after hatching. A California condor’s life span is about 60 years.
The number one cause of the California condor’s decline is humans and human activities. It all began when early Europeans settled in America (looking at you Columbus). They shot, poisoned, and generally disturbed the condors. They also vastly reduced their food supply of deer, elk and other large mammals. By 1985, the entire California condor population was reduced to just 27 individuals. It was decided to capture these individuals into captivity to try and save them from total extinction.
A controversial conservation breeding program was started in the 1980’s and today the population size is a little over 400 individuals (125 of them being wild; the rest in captivity). Lead poisoning continues to be the number one threat to the condor as well as habitat loss. It is completely illegal to kill a California condor and a bill was introduced in 2007 banning hunters from using lead based ammunition because the California condor feeds on some of the carcasses hunters bring down. It’s a very slow process, especially due to their reproduction rates and the oldest living condor has only made it to 40 years but slowly but surely, the numbers are rising.