An endangered species, the California condor is a carnivorous bird that lives in wooded mountains in California, Arizona, and Mexico. In flight, the condors are massive creatures that have a wing span of 10 feet (about three meters) and can soar up to heights of 15,000 feet (about 4,600 meters) at speeds up to 55 miles per hour (about 88 km). As an adult, the California condor typically weighs around 29 pounds (about 13 km) and lives up to 60 years.
The creatures are easily recognizable. Adult condors possess black bodies and a unique pinkish bald head that actually can change in color from yellow to bright red, depending on the condor's mood. Their hairless heads prevent food from sticking to them while they gorge their food.
California condors are scavengers, feeding off the carcasses of large animals including cattle, deer, and sheep. In addition to dead animals, condors feed on rodents, rabbits, and fish. Possessing a poor sense of smell, the birds rely on their sharp eyesight to find food. The condors will often travel together hundreds of miles to find food. When they find a carcass, the condors can become so full they will not need to eat for several days.
The California condor, known by the scientific name Gymnogyps californianus, has very few natural enemies other than man. Native Americans revered the birds, which have the largest wing span of any bird in North America. Native Americans referred to condors as thunderbirds. When the creatures were in flight, the Native Americans thought the sky became filled with thunder when the birds flapped their wings.
At the age of six, the creatures typically begin reproducing. The California condor reproduces slowly, as the female lays only one egg every two years. Condors often make their nests in caves and crevices. Within two months, the egg hatches, producing a chick with bald patches over most of its body. Approximately five months later, the chick is ready to take flight.
Condors once were plentiful in the Southwest, but their numbers in the wild dwindled to less than three dozen in the 1970s and 1980s. Condors were nearly wiped out due to poaching and their habitat being destroyed. Additionally, condors were driven to the brink of extinction because of lead poisoning, obtained when the creatures unintentionally would consume bullets left in carcasses. Thanks to conservation efforts that have been called the most expensive in United States history, the birds have made a significant comeback in the wild, with numbers rising above 300 in the 2000s.