Condor History

The California Condor History  Gymnogyps californianus

During the Pleistocene Era, ending 10,000 years ago, the condor’s range extended across much of North America. Fossils have been found in upstate New York and Florida as well as throughout the West.  At the time of the arrival of pioneers, the condor ranged along the pacific coast from British Columbia south through Baja California, Mexico. By 1940 the range had been reduced to the coastal mountains of southern California with nesting occurring primarily in the rugged, chaparral-covered mountains, and foraging in the foothills and grasslands of the San Joaquin Valley. Today condors are being reintroduced into the mountains of southern California north of the Los Angeles basin, in the Big Sur vicinity of the central California coast,  near the Grand Canyon in Arizona and near the highest peak in northern Baja.  The condor’s are now flying into more and more of their historic range, most recently into much of the Southern Sierra Mountains.

Males and females are similar in appearance. Adult condors have a mostly bald head and neck. The skin of the head and neck of a mature California Condor is colored in shades of pink, red, orange, yellow, and light blue; becoming more intensely pink/orange during times of excitement and in the breeding season. Feathers are mostly black except for triangle shaped white underwing linings. Juvenile birds have dusky black heads and bodies with limited white underwing linings. At hatch, chicks have light pink and orange skin and are covered in off-white down which is quickly replaced by gray down.

California Condors have a wing span of about 9.5 feet and stand at a height of 45-55 inches and weigh 17 to 25 pounds. Males are generally slightly larger than females.

Unlike birds of prey, condors do not have sharp talons capable of killing or grasping objects.

The condor’s beak is long, sharp, and powerful. It can pierce the hide of a horse. Condors use their beaks to tear the flesh from carcasses, and to touch, feel, and explore their surroundings. Condors have been observed using their beak to remove foliage from trees to create better roosting sites, and manipulating rocks and other objects in caves to improve the nesting area.

It is not known how long condors live, however the oldest California Condor in captivity was born in 1966. An Andean condor in a zoo in Italy died recently at 71 years of age. Scientists believe that condors in the wild did not live to much over 40 years of age.  Condor # 21 (AC-9), born May 14, 1980, is the oldest bird in the wild and is in the southern California flock.

California Condors reach sexual maturity when they are 5 to 7 years of age.  California Condor courtship takes place December through February.  The male condor repeatedly performs highly ritualized courtship displays to the female, standing with his wings partially held out, head down, and neck arched forward; he turns slowly around, rocking from side to side. Graceful acrobatic flights, where one partner follows the other, are also performed by the pair. (see photos below) Condor pairs stay together over successive seasons. However, if one partner is lost, a new partner will be sought.  Gestation, the period between fertilization and egg laying is approximately 2 weeks.  Parents alternate incubating the egg, each often staying with the egg for up to several days at a time while the other parent is out searching for food.  The chick hatches after 54 to 58 days of incubation. The parents share duties in feeding and brooding (warming) the chick. Chicks are fed partially digested food regurgitated from the adult’s crop. Flight feathers are fully developed at about six months of age. The chick is dependent on its parents for 18 months to two years as it learns to forage and feed on its own in the wild.  A breeding pair of California Condors will typically lay an egg every other year.  Female Condors pick out territories, typically a bluff or canyon with many caves.  Condor pairs will repeatedly use these same caves each time they nest.


Last known photo of Condor 428 – The Wanderer – named for her long flights including 2 trips North to Kings Canyon

Condors are fastidious birds; after eating they bathe in rock pools and will spend many hours preening and drying their feathers. If no water is available they will clean their heads and necks by rubbing them on grass, rocks, or tree branches.

California Condors can soar on warm thermal updrafts for hours, soaring with the wind at ground speeds of more than 55 miles per hour and altitudes of 15,000 feet. Flights up to 225 miles in a day have been recorded. Condors hold their wings in a horizontal position and fly very steadily, unlike turkey vultures which fly with their wings held in a V-shape and appear to be unsteady or “wobbly.”  Most often the condors can be seen flying in lazy circles riding the thermals and updrafts along mountain ridges while they progress forward at about 10-15 miles per hour.

Lead from ammunition is the most frequent cause of death for condor’s in the wild.  The vast majority of hunters use non-lead ammunition for their own health as well as for the health of the animals that might feed on gut piles left behind from a hunt.  There are 43 species that also part of the cleanup crew including Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles.  The Ridley-Tree Act made it illegal to hunt game within the Condor range.  Condors were still dieing.  AB 711 was signed into law in 2013 and this new law will eventually forbid taking any animal within the State of California with lead ammunition.  There is a phase in period of up to 5 years for California Fish and Wildlife regions to put this Law into effect.  In the meantime many condors are poisoned by the food they find in the wild.  Over 20 condors were treated for lead poisoning in October of 2013 from a Southern California population of just under 70 birds.  Because Condors are social birds and feed in groups one tainted carcass will often poison many birds.  If only 1% of the food that condor’s find is lead tainted that will be enough to keep the condor population from expanding without assistance from the breeding programs and various condor programs.  The condors are well adapted to our area, they readily find food and places to make nests.  What they are incapable of doing is figuring out if their food has been poisoned by the means that it was dispatched.

Local History of the California Condor

In 1982 there were a total of …..

22 California Condors alive in the world.

1937 – 1,200 acres was preserved  for the Sisquoc Condor Sanctuary

1947-1951 – 53,000 acres was preserved for Sespe Condor Sanctuary

1967 – California Condors are placed on Federal Endangered Species list

1971 – California Condors are placed on California Endangered Species List

1974 – Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge established 2,471 acres

198222 condors alive

1985 – Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge established 14,094 acres

1987 – Last wild condor captured 19 Apr using a pit trap at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge

1992 – 8 condors released from Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge

1993 – 5 condors  released from Lions Canyon, Sisquoc Condor Sanctuary

1995 – 14 more condors released from Lions Canyon

1996 – 4 condors released from Castle Crags, Machesna Mtn. Wilderness and 4 from Hopper Mtn. NWR

1997 – 4 condors released from Lions Canyon

1999 – 6 condors released from Lions Canyon

2000-2007 – 26 condors released from Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge

2007-2011 – 25 California Condors released from Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge

2012 – 33 fledged California Condors are flying wild for the entire program with 16 over Southern California.

June of 2014 – There are 128 condors flying over southern California and a world total of 228 birds flying free, 193 in captivity for a total of …..

421 California condors alive in the world



Condors 63 and 147 in paired flight, This pair is nesting at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge.  The photo sequence was taken by the upper Refuge Sign on the recently renamed Hudson Ranch Road.