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What is a Condor?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 15 August 2014
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The term “condor” is used to refer to two different bird species which are both classified as New World vultures. Condors share a number of traits both with each other and with Old World vultures, filling a unique ecological role as scavengers who help break down dead animals. Sadly, both condor species are seriously threatened; one almost became extinct, and the other is considered to be at risk.

The California condor or Gymnogyps californianus was once found across much of the Pacific Northwest. As colonists began to settle in the region, the range of the California condor shrunk dramatically, and by the 1980s, there were only 22 California condors left. Biologists decided to take all of the condors into captivity to establish a captive breeding program in the hopes of saving the birds; the program turned out to be a success, with condors being reintroduced to California and Northern Mexico in the 1990s.

The other condor species is the Andean condor, Vultur gryphus, which is found on the Pacific side of the Andes mountains in South America. The Andean condor is not as seriously threatened as the California condor, but this bird species may be at risk. Several zoos have established Andean condor breeding programs to ensure that stocks of this bird remain healthy.

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Both condor species are extremely large, with wingspans of up to 10 feet (three meters), making them the largest birds in flight in North America. The birds have dull black plumage with white markings; California condors are marked under their wings, while Andean condors have a collar of white feathers around their necks. Like other vultures, condors have bare skin on their heads for hygiene reasons, and their skin can vary from cream to orange in color. Condors appear to be able to express emotions by changing their skin color.

Condors take around six months to learn to fly, and they may live with their parents for over a year. Most condors are around six years of age by the time they start breeding, and they mate for life. This can be a serious problem for condor conservationists, as condors may remain single after the death of a mate. Healthy condors can live to be fifty years old or more.

Several things threaten condor stocks in the wild. Because these birds are scavengers, they are at risk from poisons used to control animal pests. They can also ingest lead shot from the animals they scavenge; California condors are actually routinely tested and treated for lead poisoning for this very reason. Condors also suffer from habitat destruction, and they are at risk from utility lines, thanks to their very large wingspans. In California, captive breeding programs use aversion training to teach condors to avoid power lines.

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