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California Condor

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« on: March 20, 2009, 04:21:57 am »

BrokenWing Chronicles
California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus)

The California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) is a North American species of bird in the New World vulture family Cathartidae. Currently, this condor inhabits only the Grand Canyon area and western coastal mountains of California and northern Baja California. Although other fossil members are known, it is the only surviving member of the genus Gymnogyps.

It is a large, black vulture with patches of white on the underside of the wings and a largely bald head with skin color ranging from yellowish to a bright red, depending on the bird's mood. It has the largest wingspan of any bird found in North America and is one of the heaviest. The condor is a scavenger and eats large amounts of carrion. It is one of the world's longest-living birds, with a lifespan of up to 50 years.

Condor numbers dramatically declined in the 19th century due to poaching, lead poisoning, and habitat destruction. Eventually, a conservation plan was put in place by the United States government that led to the capture of all the remaining wild condors in 1987. These 22 birds were bred at the San Diego Wild Animal Park and the Los Angeles Zoo. Numbers rose through captive breeding and, beginning in 1991, condors have been reintroduced into the wild. The project is the most expensive species conservation project ever undertaken in the United States. The California Condor is one of the world's rarest bird species. As of April 2008, there are 299 condors known to be living, including 147 in the wild.

The exact taxonomic placement of the California Condor and the remaining six species of New World vultures remains unclear.[6] Though both are similar in appearance and have similar ecological roles, the New World and Old World vultures evolved from different ancestors in different parts of the world. Just how different the two are is currently under debate, with some earlier authorities suggesting that the New World vultures are more closely related to storks.[7] More recent authorities maintain their overall position in the order Falconiformes along with the Old World vultures[8] or place them in their own order, Cathartiformes.[9] The South American Classification Committee has removed the New World vultures from Ciconiiformes and instead placed them in Incertae sedis, but notes that a move to Falconiformes or Cathartiformes is possible.

Today's California Condor is the sole surviving member of Gymnogyps and has no accepted subspecies; although its range greatly contracted during the Holocene, the species always had a small and inbred population. However, there is a Late Pleistocene palaeosubspecies, Gymnogyps californianus amplus, which occurred over much of the bird's historical range even extending into Florida but was larger, having about the same weight as the Andean Condor. This bird also had a wider bill.[11] As the climate changed during the last ice age, the entire population became smaller until it had evolved into the Gymnogyps californianus californianus of today.

Wild condors inhabit large territories, often traveling 250 kilometers (150 mi) a day in search of carrion.[25] It is thought that in the early days of its existence as a species, the California Condor lived off of the carcasses of the "megafauna", which are now extinct in North America. They still prefer to feast on large, terrestrial mammalian carcasses such as deer, goats, sheep, donkeys, horses, pigs, mountain lions, bears, or cattle. Alternatively, they may feed on the bodies of smaller mammals, such as rabbits or coyotes, aquatic mammals such as whales and sea lions, or salmon. Bird and reptile carcasses are rarely eaten. Since they do not have a sense of smell,[26] they spot these corpses by looking for other scavengers, like smaller vultures and eagles, who cannot rip through the tougher hides of these larger animals with the efficiency of the larger condor. They can usually intimidate other scavengers away from the carcass, with the exception of bears, which will ignore them, and Golden Eagles, which will fight a condor over a kill or a carcass.[14] In the wild they are intermittent eaters, often going for between a few days to two weeks without eating,[25] then gorging themselves on 11.5 kilograms (23 lb) of meat at once, sometimes to the point of being unable to lift themselves off the ground.

Adult Condors begin to look for a mate when they reach sexual maturity at the age of six.[21] To attract a prospective mate, the male condor performs a display. In the display, the male turns his head red and puffs out his neck feathers. He then spreads his wings and slowly approaches the female. If the female lowers her head to accept the male, the condors become mates for life.[24] The pair makes a simple nest in caves or on cliff clefts, especially ones with nearby roosting trees and open spaces for landing. A mated female lays one bluish-white egg every other February or March. The egg weighs about 280 grams (10 oz) and measures from 90120 millimeters (34 in) in length and about 67 millimeters (2⅝ in) in width. If the chick or egg is lost or removed, the parents "double clutch", or lay another egg to take the lost one's place. Researchers and breeders take advantage of this behavior to double the reproductive rate by taking the first egg away for hand-rearing; this induces the parents to lay a second egg, which the condors are sometimes allowed to raise.[28]

The eggs hatch after 53 to 60 days of incubation by both parents. Chicks are born with their eyes open and sometimes can take up to a week to hatch from their egg.[15] The young are covered with a grayish down until they are almost as large as their parents. They are able to fly after five to six months, but continue to roost and hunt with their parents until they turn two, at which point they are displaced by a new clutch.

As the number of condors grew, attention began to focus on releasing some back into the wild. In 1988, the US Fish and Wildlife Service began a reintroduction experiment involving the release of captive Andean Condors into the wild in California. Only females were released, to eliminate the possibility of accidentally introducing a South American species into the United States. The experiment was a success, and all the Andean Condors were recaptured and re-released in South America.[21] California Condors were released in 1991 and 1992 in California, and again in 1996 in Arizona near the Grand Canyon.[1] Though the birth rate remains low in the wild, their numbers are increasing steadily through regular releases of captive-reared adolescents.
Unanticipated deaths among these populations occurred due to contact with Golden Eagles, power lines, and other factors such as lead poisoning. Since 1994, captive-bred California Condors have been trained to avoid power lines and people. Since the implementation of this aversion conditioning program, the number of condor deaths due to power lines has greatly decreased.[40] Lead poisoning due to fragmented lead bullets in large game waste is a particularly big problem for condors due to their extremely strong digestive juices;[41] this lead waste is not as much of a problem for other avian scavengers such as the Turkey Vulture and Common Raven. This problem has been addressed in California by the Ridley-Tree Condor Preservation Act, a bill that goes into effect January 1, 2008 that requires that hunters use non-lead bullets when hunting in the condor's range.

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