California Condor recovering from near extinction

By James Hale, Wildlife Biologist:            

The California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) was nearly extirpated due to human activities. The population dipped to a low of nine individuals living gin the wild in 1985 and through the help of humans has made a remarkable recovery. Several factors contributed to their demise including shooting, poisoning (lead, strychnine and cyanide), scarcity of food, human disturbance of nesting areas, collisions, DDT and DDE contamination leading to egg shell thinning, calcium stress and other miscellaneous factors. Mortality by fires and the regular use of condors in sacrificial ceremonies by Native American tribes may have contributed to historic population declines as well. As of September 30, 2012 through the success of captive breeding programs the population in the wild has increase to 230 individuals living in California, Utah, Arizona, Baja, and Mexico. Locally, several individuals from the newly formed Pinnacles National Park population recently visited the observatories on top of Mount Hamilton. The individuals in captivity are 180.

Gymnogyps californianus literally translates to naked vulture of California. In early historical times the California condor was widely distributed along the west coast of North America from British Columbia to Baja California in Mexico, and as far east as Colorado and Wyoming. Fossil records of the Pleistocene suggest the Condor ranged as far eastward as Texas, New York and Florida. The condor began to retreat from its full former range at a very early date that probably coincided with the demise of the mega fauna such as the mammoths, giant ground sloths and saber-toothed cats upon which it fed. The earliest contact of humans with condors occurred presumably at least around 13,000 years ago when our species first came to North America from eastern Asia. It is clear that condors were symbolically important to Native American cultures from the archaeological evidence in middens and caves. Condors were featured in both Yokut and Chumash cave art and in the fabrication of ritual and ceremonial garments. Molluk the condor was prominent in Bay Miwok stories and creation myths. The arrival of the Europeans in the late eighteenth century and the rapid environmental changes they brought with them led to the steady decline of the condors’ population.

The California condor is the largest soaring bird of continental North America with a wingspan of nearly ten feet and a weight of up to twenty three pounds. Using thermal updrafts, condors can soar and glide up to 60 miles per hour and easily travel over one hundred miles per day in search of food. In flight, adult California condors are recognizable by distinctive white feather triangles on the undersides of their wings, which contrasts with the mostly black plumage. The large naked head is covered with baggy, wrinkled skin that is mostly bright orange to pink in adults and grayish black in juveniles. Condors inflate the air sacs in their head and neck region in aggressive and sexual contexts. The featherless head, as in all vultures, is an adaptation to their carrion diet. Carcasses of a wide variety of animals, primarily deer, livestock, and mammals serve as the major food resources. The lack of feathers provides less surface area for disease-carrying bacteria and viruses and is easier to keep clean. California Condors rely upon their keen eyesight when searching for food and often follow Turkey Vultures and Common Ravens as they scavenge for food. Males and females are identical in size and plumage, Condors do not vocalize. The morning sunning posture facing toward or away from the sun helps in thermoregulation and ultraviolet radiation for microbe control. Once paired, Condors presumable mate for life, taking another mate only when the first one dies. Nest sites are in caves, rock crevices and tree cavities where one blue-green egg (weighing about ten ounces and five inches in length) is laid on a scrape every other year. Incubation is about two months. Both parents care for the chick until it fledges at five or six months. Sexual maturity isn’t reached until five or six years. This low fecundity has added to the species’ difficulty in maintaining, much less increasing its population size.

Probably California’s most famous endangered species, the California condor was pushed to the brink of extinction by human interference. Now only human intervention, in the form of captive breeding, reintroduction to the wild, and habitat protection programs might prevent its complete disappearance. Whether these efforts will allow a stable California Condor population to exist in the wild outside of zoos and captive breeding programs may not be evident for several decades. Thus far it seems hopeful as they face the challenges to surviving the pressures of living in the modern world.