California Condor

California Condor "Redwood Queen"

California Condor “Redwood Queen”

This bird technically became extinct in 1987.  California condors were once widespread across North America, then perilously declined, now they’re back.


The largest bird in North America, Gymnogyps californianus, is a New World vulture.  This scavenger’s diet is carrion, and in the Pleistocene era they scavenged dead megafauna.  With the extinction of megafauna, their diet now is the carcasses of large and small mammals. With a long lifespan of 60 years, they help keep our planet free of rotting carcasses.  More about the condor here. 


Poaching, habitat destruction, and lead poisoning, combined with a natural low birth rate nearly wiped the population out.  By 1987 there were only 27 California condors left on the planet.


A controversial conservation plan (info here)  moved forward, and scientists captured the last 27 birds.  They were protected in zoos, a breeding program was initiated, and gradually the captive numbers rose again.


The captive breeding program became so successful that in 1991 condors were reintroduced into the wild.  They are still, however, classified as critically endangered.  As of October 2014 there are 425 individuals on earth.


We spotted the condor photographed here off the coast of California near Julie Pffeiffer Burns State Park, not far from Big Sur.  That day we saw two, Nos. 190 and 251.  Ventana Wildlife Society protects the central California condors, more info here.


A massive bird with a 9.8 foot wingspan (3.0 m), they can travel 160 miles (250 km) a day.   Regardless of their size, it is not easy to spot them.  There are only 60 individuals, for example, in central California.  Also, as gliders, they fly high:  as high as 15,100 feet (4,600 m).


It was a unique encounter, seeing these condors…we had tried for years.  For one thing, they are so huge they make a turkey vulture look like songbird.  Bigger than a bald or golden eagle, their size is astounding.


For another thing, because they are captive bred, every individual is personally bred and documented.  Redwood Queen, seen here,  is a female, born on May 10, 1998 in Los Angeles to Parents #5 and 36.  She has had Chicks #46, 5, and 99.  To learn more I could link to her bio.


How crazy and wonderful is that?


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander



79 thoughts on “California Condor

    • I was very impressed, with the recovery effort and the condor. There are several programs in different western states; with a little investigating, you can find out if there’s one in your area. Thanks so much CS! 😀

  1. It makes me happy when I hear or read successful mission such as this one. I’ve never seen any condors in California but I’ve seen them in South America. They are impressive and powerful birds, they usually fly at high altitudes. Thank you for the nice post my dear friend. 🙂

    • I’m glad you got to see an Andean condor, HJ. I imagine you saw it while living and studying down there, I am sure it was an absolute thrill for you. I was once on a wildlife tour in Peru. We had a new bus driver, who did not know he had a busload of birders, and he pointed and said those were Andean condors. We had avidly been looking for the condor for a week, but had not seen it. The bus literally rocked from all of us going to the window to see. lol. Well, it wasn’t a condor, it was a vulture. We never did see that condor, which made our Calif. condor siting that much more thrilling. Thanks so much, my friend! 😀

  2. Jet I think it is astounding that from 27 birds a species could be saved. I wonder if with that kind of wingspan and the ability to fly so high if they ever have unfortunate encounters with planes. I applaud Athena for capturing this vivid image. I think I would have been so excited I would have managed many shots of the sky and horizon and possibly, with a little luck, a wing tip.

    • And when she took this photo we were on the side of Hwy 1, a very busy Calif. highway, with only a little room and a sharp precipice down to the sea. But we were near Ventana Wilderness, knew we might see a condor, and then I spotted it (while she drove). She had the camera in her lap, we pulled over immediately and had about five minutes before they disappeared. Thanks, dear Sue, so much for your comment. 😀

    • We had to make it a mission, to see one, and after many yrs we succeeded. There are programs down in So. Calif., too, if you are interested. Both San Diego and LA zoos were part of the original program, they would have more info. Thanks so much, Cindy. 😀

  3. Lucky you to see these wonderful birds! In the 1930’s my second cousin twice removed, Eben McMillan, bought a ranch in the San Luis Obispo area. Over the next 20 years he and his brother Ian noticed the decline of the population and voiced their concerns. In the 60’s they were asked by the National Audubon Society to do research on the condors. The McMillan’s found there were environmental concerns that weren’t being addressed. They recommended the banning of pesticides and a ban on the shooting of the birds. Because the McMillans were not scientists, their recommendations were slow to be acted upon. It wasn’t until the population was reduced drastically that drastic measures were implemented – the capture of the last remaining 27 birds. At the time the McMillan brothers opposed the captive breeding program because they felt it took the emphasis off the larger problem, the environmental causes for the decline of the birds. Fortunately the program has been successful with hunting ended and poisons banned. The McMillan brothers were considered one of the first environmentalist activists. The boys also spent their time on another endangered bird species – the California quail and developed a system of preservation for them.

    • Oh, Kenneth, this is an astounding story! (I have goosebumps.) It is exactly this kind of citizen science and environmental awareness that has given those of us in this era the chance to experience so much wildlife today. It was very controversial, and has been hugely expensive, and is still tentative. The McMillan bros. were right about the envir. causes, at the root. Lead poisoning (ammo) and pollution are still exceedingly threatening. But how wonderful to know of two people who got things started, and to hear their story. Thanks so much for taking the time to share this, I am humbled and grateful. 😀 😀

      • Thanks Jet. I just wished I had met them. My cousin is an ornithologist and met Ian just before Ian’s death in 1991. (Eben died in 1998). He said the house had a room full of books, some brought from Scotland when the McMillans were removed from the Arron, Scotland in 1829 by the Clearances. They landed in New Brunswick and my side of the McMillan branch moved to British Columbia while another branch went to California in 1867. I have made contact with a few McMillans still living in the San Luis Obispo area through my genealogy work.

      • How utterly fascinating and thrilling for you to know all this, and still have connections. Geneaology is great for this, and really wonderful (Athena is currently tracing her roots, through, membership, etc.) I really appreciate your input, Kenneth–and I always enjoy your photos so much. 😀

  4. Too often, man’s careless disregard for Mother Nature and her ways leads to less than desirable, and sometimes catastrophic results. The California Condor is an example of that.
    There are examples of man’s scientific involvement, in the form of reversing the diasterous decline in the population of a species, which the California Condor, thankfully, is also an example of.
    I remember reading years ago about these majestic birds being put on the the endangered list. Thanks Jet for the update, and good news of the recovery efforts.

    • Hi T! It’s been a rocky road for the Calif. condor, but we are lucky to still have them on this planet, and very fortunate to have had so many organizations and individuals devoted to their survival. I’m happy you enjoyed the post, and glad to know you’ve been following them. Many thanks! 😀

  5. How magnificent they are! Very happy to read a success story here, even if there’s a way to go yet – heading in the right direction…I can only imagine your excitement at seeing this wonderful bird! Great post.

    • Thanks so much, pc. It is indeed a success story, and yes, heading in the right direction. Oh yes, I was so excited. The bird was so much larger than I had imagined. I’m happy you enjoyed the post, pc, and I appreciate your participation in it. Many thanks, as always. 😀

    • Your comment made me chuckle, Bill. It is indeed the condor version of, including photos! I thank you for your visit today, and all the many days you visit. 😀

    • The condor projects have had their ups and downs, as you know, Sherry. But thank goodness there have been successes, and so many devoted people. I was happy to see that Gov. Brown outlawed lead ammo this year. There are still wrinkles, of course, but there’s hope. Thanks so much. 🙂

  6. I tried so very, very hard to see a condor while I was in Big Sur, but no luck. Every time I thought I had a success, it turned out to be a common vulture! As for lead bullets, I did notice that some of the reserves we went to on our latest trip had a ban on lead bullets. Don’t know how or if it’s enforced, but it was posted.

    • I can sure relate to trying very, very hard to see the condor, Gunta, and not seeing it. And then you see a vulture and darn, that’s not it. It took us a few yrs. I’m glad to hear you saw signs posted for lead bullets. Really appreciated your feedback here, Gunta — thanks so much. 😀

  7. Love this post, Jet!! It’s lovely that when an individual is spotted, it can be immediately recognized, but it’s crazy too…as there still are so few individuals on earth. Happy the breeding program worked 🙂

    • It’s a different sort of birding, Tiny, but I am glad there are still condors living on earth. I, too, am so glad the breeding program continues to work. Thanks so much, my friend, for your visit. 😀

  8. I am so impressed by the work that is done on reintroducing California condor. It was such a risk, but without it the bird would be gone by now. Their natural habitats will never be the same, and the best people can do is to sustain them this way. It is better than losing this amazing species forever.

  9. I have only once seen condors, that was in Peru. They were so magnificent to watch in the air as they came into the canyon where we were waiting for them. I was not aware of their destiny in North America (likely a different species I would think, I cannot remember what the one on Peru was called anymore) but very happy to hear about the reintroduction.

  10. What a spectacular performance on the wing,dear Jet!A gigantic and powerful gyps,Athena has astonishingly captured the “Queen” Num.90!I’m so glad those programmes and all the recovery efforts were successful and the species is saved.There will be more and more in the future ripping or ploughing the skies,as we say in Greece,like Fighter Aircraft!Thanks for your detail account and all the links.Btw,their scientific name,Gymnogyps,which is of Greek origin,confuses me a bit.Gymno means naked and gyps means vulture.Why the naked part?Do you think it has to do with their bald head?
    Have a wonderful day,dear friend 🙂

    • Your contribution of the Greek translation is a fun addition, thanks so much, dear Doda. And you are spot-on, the naked head, or bald head, is where the “gymno” comes from. The naked head helps the vulture forage better with carrion. I’m so glad you enjoyed the condor post, and appreciate your lovely Greek addition. Always a pleasure, dear Doda — thanks so much for your visit today! 😀

    • You’re exactly right, Blondie, condors have a keen sense of sight. I read their sense of smell is weak, so the sight makes up for it. Many thanks for your visit~~ 😀

  11. I can see that the condor website is one you could lose a life in, Jet! Who’d have thought! And poor 190, classified as the wrong sex! I didn’t understand how you could know which birds you had seen from that distance, but piecing together things from the comments I gather it was because of your location. Exciting stuff! 🙂

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the condor post, Jo. You may have already pieced this together, but I’ll still explain. Each condor is tagged, and we could read the tag numbers with the help of our strong binoculars. Then we looked up the condor’s tag number on the website and clicked on the “Condor Spotter” button. Number 90, which is really 190 (they don’t put the third digit on the bird tag because it’s too big for the bird’s wing), was not wrongly classified, it is a female born in L.A. I clicked on her full bio to see all the details of her life. It’s a unique way to go birding in this digital century of ours! Thanks so much for stopping by, Jo–always a pleasure. 🙂

  12. Astounding, indeed! Can’t even imagine a bird so large! Enjoyed hearing about the recovery efforts, too. And, loved hearing about your adventure in spotting and capturing her photo. You two are astounding! Thank you for sharing.

    • We were a great team, one zipping down Hwy 1, while the other was looking through binoculars, and then I shrieked, “Stop now!” So glad you enjoyed the post, dear Nan. 😀

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