The California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) was nearly lost from the world in the late 1900s. The population of the largest flying land birds in America dropped to a perilous 27 individuals before conservation authorities made the call to capture the last remaining birds and enter them into an emergency breeding program.
California condors lived in a variety of habitats across much of the American Southwest and up into the Southwest of Canada until historical times. Going back tens of thousands of years, fossil records have shown that these birds were found across North America to Florida and north to New York state. Today, California condors are limited to captivity and a few carefully monitored populations in California, Arizona, Utah, and Baja California.
Things may have looked pretty bleak for these amazing birds, but today things look a whole lot brighter. Through the hard work and dedication of caring individuals, these birds are making a comeback.
Read this article to learn more about where California condors live and where the best places are to see them.
California Condor in flight over Big Sur national park, USA
California condors have undergone a massive range reduction in both historic and prehistoric times. Records indicate that these birds historically ranged from Northeast Mexico and across the American Southwest up to Southern British Columbia and Alberta in Canada.
It appears that their range was already reduced to the west by the time European settlers arrived, although there are fossil records from the east in Florida and New york.
The current distribution of California condors in the wild includes just a handful of fragmented but carefully managed populations in Southern and Central California, Arizona, Utah, and Baja California. An exciting new reintroduction project has also just begun in Northern California in the Pacific Northwest.
Continue reading to learn more about where California condors live.
California condors are generalists when it comes to habitat. They show a preference for open habitats like grasslands, meadows, and even beaches where they can spot food sources. Open habitats also make movement much safer because these birds have immense wingspans that can exceed 9ft (274cm) across.
California condors are very large birds that rely on air currents to provide lift for soaring. Hilly and mountainous country provides this lift and also provides these birds with cliff sites for nesting.
A tagged California Condor in flight
California condors are incredibly rare birds, so you are not likely to see them outside of zoos, captive breeding facilities, or in the areas where wild populations are actively managed. Their numbers are increasing due to the efforts of hard-working individuals, and hopefully one day they will be a more common sight across the American West.
The only states where California condors live wild in America are California, Arizona, and Utah. In California, these majestic birds live around Big Sur and north of the Los Angeles basin. They can also be found near the rugged Grand Canyon in Arizona.
California Condor perched on a rock, Pinnacles National Park
California condors no longer live in Canada. There are records of these critically endangered birds from the 19th and early 20th century in Southern British Columbia and Alberta, however. Hopefully, these birds will one day recover to re-occupy their former range.
California condors are most common in California (approximately 183 wild individuals) and the grand canyon area of Arizona and Utah (approximately 111 wild individuals). There are also about 40 California condors in the mountains of Baja California, Mexico.
California Condor in Big Sur
Some of the best places to see California condors are in the Golden State itself, California. The following locations are known hotspots:
California condors can also be seen in the grand canyon area of Arizona and neighboring Utah. The vicinity of Navajo bridge in Arizona is a good place to look for them.
California condors travel great distances in their search for food, but they are not known to migrate. Breeding adults are particularly sedentary and will remain around the nest site throughout the year.
California Condor with spread wings, catching a breeze at the Grand Canyon
Although condors are non-migratory, immature and non-breeding individuals have been known to undertake seasonal movements. In the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, Non-breeding condors have been observed to move north in the spring, returning south at the end of summer.
California condors are diurnal birds which means they are active during the day and sleep at night. They roost in high places near a dropoff where they can easily take flight. Cliffs, rock outcrops, and large trees are typically used.
These birds often roost together in groups, and the most dominant individuals will take the best roosting spots. Condors spend the night in either a standing or prone position. They often tuck their heads under their wing, or simply let their head dangle down while sleeping.
A soaring California Condor
California condors were temporarily extinct in the wild when the last free-flying individuals were captured in the late 1980s. Their numbers had dwindled to less than thirty, and drastic measures were needed to save the species. California condor numbers are still closely monitored today, so we have a very accurate picture of their total population size.
Happily, California condors are again flying wild in California and other parts of the American Southwest. As of 2021, there were 334 free-flying condors in the wild and a further 203 in captive breeding projects.
California condors are still classified as a critically endangered species, and various environmental concerns still need to be fully addressed before these birds will be able to live in completely wild and unmanaged populations. Nevertheless, the future is looking brighter for these amazing birds.
Close up of a California Condors head
California condors are no longer found in Florida, although they did occur that far east in prehistoric times. This is confirmed by the discovery of fossils. Today, the closest birds you are likely to see in the Sunshine State are the migratory turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) and the closely related black vulture (Coragyps atratus).
California condors are technically vultures. They belong to the Cathartidae family, which includes seven species in North and South America.
California condors are America’s largest flying land birds. These immense vultures measure about 50 inches (127cm) in length and can have a wingspan of over 9ft (274cm). These birds are heavy too, with weights of between 15 and 22 pounds (7-9.9kg)!
The largest threat to California condors is the fragments of lead they ingest after feeding on the carcasses of animals shot with firearms. Lead poisoning has accounted for more than half the mortalities where the cause of death is known. They also get sick and injured from taking in other trash like plastic, steel, and glass fragments.
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