When early American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark first arrived in Oregon, they were awe-struck by these large, intelligent birds. Clark wrote excitedly in his journal: “I believe this to be the largest bird in North America.” It turned out that Clark was right. With a wingspan of 10 feet (3 m) and weighing in at 30 lbs. (13.6 kg), the condor is the largest bird on the continent. It was so impressive that it inspired the Native American legend of the “Thunderbird,” which was said to have laid the eggs from which the first human beings were hatched. A skilled scavenger, the California Condor appears similar to Turkey Vultures with a mostly bald head, sharp beak and dark-colored feathers.
Historically, the condor was found in widespread areas all across North America. Habitat destruction, environmental toxins (especially lead) and a low reproduction rate has caused the bird’s numbers to plummet over the last century. The last known sighting of a condor in Oregon was in 1904 and, by 1940, the population has been isolated to a narrow strip of coastal mountains in California. The condor nests in caves or on rocky mountainsides. They will scavenge for food among the grasslands and savannas below these mountainous areas.
The California Condor is considered a critically endangered animal. As of 1987, only twenty-seven birds were known to exist anywhere. Thanks to legal protection and aggressive captive breeding and live release programs, that number is now estimated to be closer to two hundred; but this is still a perilously low number.
Photo credit: USFWS