For such an ugly bird, the California Condor ( Gymnogyps californianus) is a species that enjoys a great deal of admiration and attention from birds in North America and around the world. The condor is the subject of an incredible success story after the population was brought back from the brink of extinction by dedicated and diligent biologists.
The California Condor is quite distinctive. The condor has the largest wingspan of any North American bird, at XX feet or XX meters. The condor's body plumage is black, and its bald head is fleshy, folded, and pinkish-red. The bird's spiky, fringed collar is also distinctive. The condor can be distinguished from other black vultures within its range because of its sheer size – the Turkey Vulture and Black Vulture are about half the size of the condor. California Condors also have unique white wedge-shaped patches benefit each wing. Even more recognizable are the tracking tags that many adult condors carry on each wing. This rare bird can be found only in the Grand Canyon area, in Zion National Park, and the coastal and inland mountainous areas of central California.
California Condors are primarily soarers, owed to the fact that they lack the strength to continuously flap their dense wings. The condors therefore are restricted to areas with consistent thermal activity and high cliffs or large trees on which to nest. Condors, and other soaring birds such as eagles and hawks, use thermals, or columns of warm air rising from the earth, to gain altitude and travel long distances in search of food. California Condors eat carrion, and use their sensitive nose to locate fresh kills. The birds usually dominate the feeding hierarchy at a kill, but strangely, given their large size, the condors are known to be cautious when confronted by golden eagles.
The California Condor's low birth rate and late age of sexual maturity coupled with devastating effects of DDT, a pesticide that weakened the shells of the condor's eggs, which was used broadly before it was banned in 1970. The condor population plummeted to the point where, Acting with the approval of the United States government, biologists captured all 22 remaining wild birds in 1987. A well-organized conservation plan was established that has become the most expensive species protection project in US history.
A careful breeding program was established that involved feeding captive-hatched chicks using puppets designed to look identical to adult condors. Scientists also used Andean condors, another enforced species, as a type of dress rehearsal for the release of adolescent California condors. After the successful introduction of captive-raised Andean condor females to California, scientists were confident that the California condors would also thrive. The Andean condors were captured and re-released in South America, and California condoms began to be released in California and Arizona. In 2003, the first condor nestling fledged in the wild since 1981. In 2006, a pair of released condors attempted to nest in northern California. Since then, two chicks have hatched successfully in the wild. Scientists continue to monitor this endangered species so that one day its population may recover completely.