A bird often described as “so ugly, it’s beautiful,” traces its roots back as far as 10,000 years to the Pleistocene epoch.
Now they are one of the most endangered birds in the world.
Reduced to just 22 individuals in the 1982, the California condor almost became extinct in the wild. The condor has been federally listed as endangered since 1967. They were bred in captivity and first reintroduced in California in 1992 and Arizona in 1996.
A recently hatched nestling at Vermilion Cliffs National Monument was confirmed as the first wild hatchling in Arizona this breeding season.
The first fledging of a wild condor chick in 100 years was celebrated in 2003.
Considered sacred by many Native American tribes, particularly California Indian tribes and the Andean tribes of South America, according to native-languages.org, the condor appears in several creation myths and is symbolic of the sky.
The greater California Condor Recovery Program was initiated to save the species from extinction. The program is a multi-entity effort, led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The California condor has a wingspan of up to 9.9 feet and can weigh up to 26 pounds, second in weight only to the trumpeter swan at up to 30 pounds. California condors are the largest flying land bird in North America.
California condors are members of the New World vultures, family Cathartidae, and are opportunistic scavengers that utilize thermal updrafts to help them soar and glide up to 50 mph. They can travel more than 100 miles a day in search of food.
The birds are black with large bands of white on the underside of their wings. They have gray legs and feet, an ivory colored bill, a frill of black feathers surrounding the base of the neck and brownish red eyes. Their heads are mostly bald, gray in juveniles and yellow to bright orange in breeding adults, at 6 years of age.
Juvenile condors have patches of mottled white along the leading edges of their wings. Lacking in true syringeal vocalizations, they are limited to barely audible hissing or grunting sounds.
They feed primarily on large dead mammals such as deer, elk, bighorn sheep, range cattle, and horses.
Condors can live up to 60 years in the wild and nest in caves, tree cavities or on rock ledges. They do not build nests like other birds. They mate for life, and females lay a single egg, about five inches long, weighing around 10 ounces, every other year. Male and female condors share incubation shifts and rearing responsibilities.
Fledglings take their first flight at 5 to 6 months of age, but may remain in the nesting area for up to one year.
Their populations have gradually increased since the first captive-reared birds were released into the wild at Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in 1996.
As of December 2018, there were 488 total condors worldwide, with 166 in captivity and 312 in the wild. More than 88 of these majestic birds can be seen soaring through Arizona and Utah skies.
A leading cause of death in condors is lead poisoning from shot and bullet fragments in game carcasses eaten by the birds. Hunters are asked to use non-lead based ammunition in northern Arizona and southern Utah.
Primary redistribution sites for California condors are Ventura, Santa Barbara, Kern, Monterey and San Luis Obispo in California, and the Vermilion Cliffs and Grand Canyon in northern Arizona. A remote area of Baja California, Mexico has also been added.