|Binomial name||G. californianus|
|Population||425 (2014 est.)|
|Conservation status||Critically endangered|
California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) is a species of New World Vulture of the family Cathartidae, and the largest flying bird of prey after the Andean condor. It is native to the southwestern United States (especially in California and Arizona), but has historically has been found as far east as the Rocky Mountains and as far north as Canada. Hunting and passive poisoning by pesticides such as DDT have reduced its population to the point that by the late-1980s it was declared extinct in the wild.
In 1987, when the last free-flying condor was captured, only 27 of these birds were alive and placed within a captive breeding program; guarded success resulted in an increase in living birds to 425 as of 2014, with over 200 of them released into the wild in four different areas: Big Sur and Pinnacles National Park in California, the Grand Canyon National Park in north-western Arizona, and northern Baja California, Mexico.
The California Condor has a wingspan of 8.1 to 9.8 feet, and a body length 42 to 50 inches; the short angular tail adds an additional 13 to 14 inches. The weight is 17 to 30 pounds. Males are about 10% larger than the females. The plumage is blackish, with the upper feathers brown-lined. The feathers of the neck ruffle are blackish-gray. The arm wings of the wing top have white tops, on the underside of each wing they form a whitish triangle. The head is naked, only on the forehead are some black staple feathers. The head of the old birds is yellow to orange, the beak yellow, the eyes red.
Young birds have a dark head and still wear down their necks, and bear a black beak and gray eyes. From the third to the sixth or seventh year, the head and neck turns orange color of the adults.
California condors feed almost exclusively on the carrion of larger mammals. Large groups of birds are found to feed on a carcass. For a meal, they can eat 2.2 to 2.8 pounds of meat and then go hungry for several days. From their breeding grounds, they will be able to look for food for up to 18 miles away.
The female condor lays only one egg between February and May, and usually within a small cavern, on a protected ledge, or within a large tree cavity; no nests are made. The egg is incubated by both parents until about 55 to 60 days when the chick hatches. Light-colored at first, the chick's down plumage becomes gray later. Thought the nesting period is about six months long, the young birds are still attached to both parents for several more months. The young birds get the adult plumage after about six years, and gain sexual maturity after eight. Due to the long duration of this period, condors nest only every two years. In captivity, California condors can live to be 45 years old; it is unknown how long they live in the wild.
At the beginning of the twentieth century the decline of the California condor was clearly visible. By the 1950s only 150 individuals were counted; in 1968 the number was reduced to sixty, and by 1978 only thirty individual birds were left alive.  The California Condor Recovery Team was established in 1973, and in 1980 began an intensive and financially well-equipped program to save the condor from extinction. At that time only 22 birds were living in the wild, and another breeding pair was in captivity. The zoos of San Diego and Los Angeles played a significant role in the conservation program from the very beginning. Later would come the involvement the Peregrine Fund in Boise, Idaho and the Oregon Zoo. In 1987 a determination was made to capture all wild birds and place them in a captive breeding program; this action had the dubious distinction of declaring the bird extinct in the wild.
The first successes were achieved only in 1988, when a chick hatched in human care for the first time. To increase the number of birds, the first egg was removed from the nest, causing the females to lay another egg. The first egg, which had been removed from the nest, was hatched in an incubator and raised by caretakers, who had worn hand puppets resembling condor heads to feed the chicks; this was done to prevent human imprinting on the chicks; remaining eggs were reared by parent condors. Several optimizations of breeding methods led to the possibility to raise between 25 and 30 birds per year.
As early as 1992 the first condors were released again at Big Sur in the Los Padres National Forest. Subsequent recreational sites were the Kaibab Plateau north of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, Pinnacles National Park in California and Baja California in Mexico. In 2002 the birds were breeding for the first time in the wild. Since 2006, the two populations of Big Sur and Pinnacles have been united by stretching their territories into a larger, Central California population. In 2014, the first successful breed was confirmed in the state of Utah; the parents came from the Arizona population, and the brood took place in the Zion National Park.
A major reason for the near extinction is suspected to be lead poisoning, specifically from firearms munitions. The reintroduction of the condors in the wild also came with a monitoring program, which found that the danger to the condors by lead still exists today, and therefore neither the current population nor future releases cannot be regarded as stable without protective measures put into place. All released birds are recaptured after two years and their blood is tested for lead. About one-fifth of the animals have to be subjected to chelation therapy because the limits are exceeded.
In California the use of lead-based hunting ammunition has now been banned in the regions where condors live. The attempt to ban lead-containing shotguns in a larger area, however, encountered the resistance of the National Rifle Association, since alternatives such as soft iron are disadvantageous in some cases, and tungsten or copper balls are more expensive. Without significant restrictions the species cannot survive..
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus). 5-Year Review: Summary and Evaluation. USFWS, Pacific Region, Portland (OR) 2013
- Myra E. Finkelstein, Daniel F. Doak, Daniel George, Joe Burnett, Joseph Brandt, Molly Church, Jesse Grantham, Donald R. Smith: "Lead poisoning and the deceptive recovery of the critically endangered California condor"; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Bd. 109, Nr. 28, 2012, S. 11449–11454