The wandering albatross has the largest known wingspan of any living bird, at times reaching nearly 12 feet. But millions of years ago, there was a bird with wings that dwarfed those of the albatross, researchers now report.
The newly named species, Pelagornis chilensis, which lived about 5 million to 10 million years ago, had a wingspan of at least 17 feet.
This is the largest wingspan known in any bird. Although other, larger estimates have been made, they were based on fossils of feathers, and not on an intact skeleton, as in this case. The report is in The Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
Another intriguing characteristic of the bird is its long, bony beak with sharp, teethlike projections. “These were used to catch prey,” said Gerald Mayr, the study’s lead author and a zoologist at the Senckenberg museum and research institute in Frankfurt. “They probably flew down close to the water’s surface and kept their lower jaw open to catch slippery prey like squirrel fish.”
The new bird is part of a family of bony-toothed birds known as pelagornithids. Though completely extinct now, the last known birds, with much smaller wingspans, lived about two million years ago in various parts of the world, including North America, Africa, New Zealand and Japan.
The newly found skeleton is three-dimensional and not an imprint, so scientists were able to make a weight estimation of the bird. It was between 35 and 63 pounds.Continue reading the main story
TAXONOMY, NOMENCLATURE and PHYLOGENY
(Emslie 1988) (Ericson et al. 2006) (Geyer et al. 1993)(Hackett et al. 2008) (Houston 1994) (Miller 1995) (Sibley & Ahlquist 1990) (Tree of Life Web Project 2009)
Describer (Date): Shaw (1797) Vultur californianus in Shaw and Nodder's Naturalist's Miscellany, vol 9, pl. 301 and text. Amadon (1977) retained Gymnogyps. [Vultur]
Order: Accipitriformes (proposed order for hawks, eagles, vultures, osprey, secretary bird)
Family: Cathartidae (New World vultures)
Species: Gymnogyps californianus
Family: Sagittariidae (Secretarybird)
Family: Accipitiridae (Hawks, Eagles, Old World vultures)
Family: Pandionidae (Osprey)
Order: Falconiformes (proposed only for falcons)
- New World vultures' position in a taxonomy of birds has been unclear; a recent nuclear DNA study by 18 authors favors grouping condors and other New World vultures together in their own order along with other birds traditionally placed in the order Falconiformes; only falcons would remain in the order Falconiformes. (Hackett et al 2008; Ericson et al 2006;Tree of Life Web Project 2009)
- Cathartidae, traditionally placed within Falconiformes were recently thought to be related to storks (Ciconiidae).
- First suggestion of a relationship between New World vultures and storks was in 1967 (Ligon)
Konig, Rea, and Jacobs supported this suggestion with anatomical and behavioral studies (1982/1983).
- Hackett et al's phylogenetic study (2008) has found no affinity to the storks and strongly supports placement of Cathartidae within the land birds (Usually the Accipitridae)
- First suggestion of a relationship between New World vultures and storks was in 1967 (Ligon)
- California Condor is 1 of 7 species of New World vultures (group also includes turkey vulture and Andean condor)
- Historical classifications were based on bills and feet placing all birds with talons and hooked bills together in the order Falconiformes
- Closest living relative determined by DNA studies is the larger Andean Condor, (Vultur gryphus), which is in the same family, but a separate genus.
- DNA studies of the 14 founder individuals of the current condor population indicates that they belonged to three distinct sub populations. (Geyer et al 1993).
- Cathartid (New World) vultures have a long evolutionary history; 2 fossil species date from the early Oligocene (about 35 million years ago).
- During the Pliocene and Pleistocene (beginning 2 million years ago) there was a great radiation of Cathartid vulture species.
- Old World vultures share a common ancestry with eagles and hawks; similarities between New World and Old World vultures are the result of convergent evolution (similar adaptations because of similar life styles).
- New and Old World groups have not always been geographically separate. Fossils of Old World vultures are found in La Brea Tar Pits. New World vultures existed in the Old World approximately 20 million years ago.
- A possible ancestral California Condor fossil is a 1 to 1.5 million year-old fossil found in Florida, Gymnogyps kofordi.
- The California Condor dates from Late Pleistocene (around 40,000 years ago) to modern times. (Emslie 1988)
(Guthrie 1993, 1998) (Snyder 1989) (Toone & Wallace, 1994)
- In the fossil record:
- Widespread in western U.S. Late Pleistocene age deposits from British Columbia south to Baja, California.
- New York is the northeastern-most record of the prehistoric range.
- Sites also in Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Texas, Florida and Nuevo León, Mexico.
- Fossil bones are found in the La Brea tar pits, Los Angeles, California; a few records date to around 35,000 years ago from the Channel Islands of coastal California. (Guthrie 1993, 1998)
- Later restricted to Los Padres National Forest in southern California.
- 1950s: 150+ birds (California Department of Fish and Game)
- 1968: 50-60 birds
- 1978: 25-35 birds
- 1985: 9 birds after extremely harsh winter and death of 6 birds
- Last bird removed from the wild 4/19/87
- Reintroduced to Southern California (Los Padres National Forest) in 1992, to the Grand Canyon area in Arizona in 1996, to Monterey County, California in 1997, and in Baja, Mexico in 2003.
- Roosting sites in isolated rocky cliffs, rugged chaparral, pine covered mountains 2000-6000 ft above sea level
- Foraging area removed from nesting/roosting site (includes rangeland and coastal area - up to 30 km commute one way)
- Nest sites in cliffs, crevices, potholes
(Koford 1953) (Palmer 1988)
- Weight: 17-29 lbs (8-13 kg). (Andean condor is approximately 30 lbs.)
- Wingspan: 8'2"-9'7" (2.75 m) (Andean condor wingspan is 12 feet)
- Footprints: 5"-7" in length
- Adults: Black with white triangular underwing linings and edges (acquired by 6th year)
- At hatching down is short and white; birds have 4 stages of plumages (predefinitive) before the final plumages.
- Head color change from dark gray to orange between 4-6 years
- Head and neck naked - color varies: gray, yellow, red. More intense coloration when excited. Purplish-red patch on ventral side of neck
- Ruff at lower neck can be elevated to conceal most of neck
- Tail wedge shaped - central feathers longest
- Beak silvery gray or white
- Legs pink
- Iris brownish red surrounded by bright red sclera
- Males and females indistinguishable (Currently sexed using genetic techniques)
- Prolonged annual molt Feb/Mar - Nov/Dec
- Heaviest molting mid-summer
- Wing and tail require 2 periods for complete renewal
(Koford 1953) (Palmer 1988) (Snyder & Snyder 2000)
- Diurnal raptor
- Nonbreeding birds spend most of each day perched at roost sites or foraging over rangelands
- Majority of time is spent perching (15 hrs)
- Most common activity while perched is preening.
- Sunning is a 2-4 minute full extension of the wings.
- Tail is expanded, body and neck are nearly erect (longer periods if bird is wet).
- This behavior pattern is shared with storks.
- Sleep sitting or standing.
- Head is tucked under back feathers in inclement weather
- Leave roost 3-5 hours after sunrise (wait for thermals to develop); return 2-5 hours before sunset
- Normally get to foraging grounds from nest sites in flights of less than an hour. Remain on foraging grounds for periods of 1 to 3 days before returning to nests
- Mated condors fly as pairs except when sharing incubation and brooding of young
- When several condors are perched in the same tree or a small area, there is a great deal of shifting between perches
- Adults more tolerant (have fewer squabbles) than immature birds
- Fighting, chasing and other evidences of social dominance are more common near carcasses than near roosts or water.
- Exhibit strong loyalty to mates and nesting territories.
- Death of mate can precipitate territory change.
- General absence of territorial defense. (Tolerance may be related to kinship)
- Pair formation usually occurs in late fall, winter and early spring: includes coordinated pair flights, mutual grooming and display.
- Studies in the wild reported only one member (probably male) displaying during courtship ritual. Wings are extended with primaries hanging vertically. Neck is bent forward and downward so that the top of the head and back of neck are presented to the partner. Ritual strutting occurs, sometimes circling mate.
- Display leads to copulation approximately 50% of the time.
- Zoo researchers now believe that both males and females display to each other. Display is a sign of dominance rather than sex (Cohn)and occurs throughout the year in captive birds
- Rudimentary vocal abilities. Produces a variety of hissing / grunting vocalizations
- Adults may hiss when disturbed at breeding sites
- Chicks hiss-growl when threat is perceived
- Gait is somewhat slouching. Ascent of steep slopes accompanied by flapping
- Can jump vertically upward or downward 4-8ft
- Crouches, then leaps into flight from roost or cliffs
- Spirals upward on heated air (thermals)
- Capable of sustained flight speeds of 45-60 mph (70-95 kilometers/hr)
- May fly up to 140 miles/day (225 kilometers). 50 miles per day would be normal
- Normal soaring speed 30 mph (50 kilometers/hr)
- Extreme stability while soaring Koford (1953) speculates 1 hour without flapping; turkey vulture is extremely wobbly by comparison
- Even when there is very little breeze, thermal updrafts (from high temperature and light colored ground) are sufficient to enable soaring
- In summer there may be 6 hours/day with suitable atmospheric conditions for soaring. In winter there are rarely more than 4 hours
- Birds have difficulty foraging in stormy winter weather because of poor soaring conditions
- Soaring produces a whistle due to notched primary feathers on
- Fly within 1,000-2,000 feet of the ground; one confirmed report 2,500 ft above ground
- Flapping rate 2-3 wingbeats/sec
- May turn more than 15 consecutive circles in gaining altitude; average time for completion of each circle 15 seconds
- Enjoy bathing followed by sunning with outstretched wings
- Panting and inflating air sacs of head region
- Urohidrosis (excretion of chalky residue onto legs as an evaporative cooling mechanism like other cathartids and storks)
- Move to areas of favorable temperature (midsummer use of high-elevation roosts)
- Extremely curious: Circle low over groups of people. Attracted to herds of cattle. May scan for weak individuals.
- Some overlap in nest site use with turkey vultures
- Feed on the same carcasses as ravens, turkey vultures, golden eagles and coyotes. These competitors usually begin feeding earlier and finish later in the day than condors.
(Collins et al. 1999) (Fox-Dobbs et al. 2006) (Koford 1953) (Palmer 1988)
- California Condors are obligate scavengers, almost exclusively feeding on dead mammals.
- Daily food requirement of full grown captive condor is 570 gm - 1 kg (approximately 1-2 lbs).
- Indigestible material, principally hair is disgorged as pellets or castings; minimal amount as condors avoid ingesting hide - food mainly soft tissue.
- Vision is principle foraging tool. Use other species (raven, eagle) as visual guides / olfactory sense limited
- Cattle carcasses (of calves) preferred food source. Although carrion eaters, prefer fresh meat - includes deer, elk, pronghorn, smaller mammals.
- One study of 40 condor nest sites (both recent and formerly active) found bones of immature cattle most often represented along with a wide variety of medium-sized mammals such as rabbits, ground squirrels, pocket gophers, coyotes, foxes, and weasels. (Collins et al 1999)
- A need for calcium sources for growing chicks may prompt condors to eat small mammals whose bones are more easily consumed than the large bones of cattle; nest sites studied contained many mollusc shells, perhaps as a source for calcium; metal, plastic, and glass items in nests perhaps mistaken for bone fragments. (Collins et al 1999)
- Eat rapidly - 20-45 minutes/feeding
- Dominance hierarchy common at feeding site: condors generally displace common ravens and turkey vultures. They are displaced by golden eagles and coyotes
- Young condor is fed by regurgitation
- The coastal condor population may have survived the widespread extinctions at the end of the Pleistocene because they ate marine mammals (that did not become extinct) rather than terrestrial food sources; by contrast, isotope studies reveal that a black vulture that did become extinct fed only on large animals living on land (many of which became extinct). (Fox-Dobbs et al 2006),
- Prefer clean water but when necessary will drink from stagnant pools
- Schedule of drinking irregular. A female getting ready to lay egg increases water uptake, but incubating adults observed to go without water for two days
(Koford 1953) (Palmer 1988 )(Kuehler et al. 1991) (Snyder & Snyder 2000)
- All cathartids are cavity dwellers. No conventional nest
- Egg laid in caves in cliffs, potholes, crevices among boulders, 2 known nests in burned out giant sequoias
- Prefer coarse gravel as substrate for egg
- May bank egg with rock, debris, otherwise no nesting materials
- Pairs change sites in successive breeding attempts whether successful or not; sites generally several kilometers apart
- Female usually lays one egg every other year because of prolonged care of young into its second year
- Egg is laid from a standing position approximately 1 month after copulation.
- Early Mid January - Mid March.
- As late as mid April (replacement clutching). Will routinely lay replacements (as many as 3) for eggs lost early during the breeding season (normal recycling: 1 month after egg loss)
- 1 whitish or pale green / pale blue egg
- Oval in shape, shell finely granulated
- Approximately 267 grams, 109 mm long, 66 mm wide
- 54-58 days in duration.
- Egg is maneuvered into position on top of inner toes (frequently kicked by mistake)
- Parents share incubation turns (from 2-5 days each). Range is 1-9 days
- Egg may be left untended for very brief periods
- Incubating bird spends most of its time sleeping
- Chick is fed several times a day by both parents for first few weeks of life. Later fed only once a day
- Chick may walk from nest site about 5 months after hatching.
- First flights only about 1/4 mile. Can fly well enough to search for food at 10-12 months but continues to rely on parents into second year.
- Hatching to 18 weeks
- Occurs 2.5 days after egg pips
- Weight at hatching: 150g - 200 g
- Hatchings usually occurs in early April/May
- Covered with white down. Head, neck, part of belly and underwing bare. Chick is brooded continuously
- When second down appears (long, woolly dark gray) chick is brooded only at night
- Chick stays close to location of egg for first 3 weeks.
- May begin to wander outside nest as early as 8 weeks
- Juvenile feathers appear at about 18 weeks.
- Fully developed plumage at 24-25 weeks.
- Color of head skin changes to slate gray. Beak color dark gray
- Juvenile begins practice flights at about 5 or 6 months- a few yards at a time.
- Most juveniles leave in September / October but continue to be fed by parents through their first winter
- Two phases of plumage: "black" and "ring-necked"
- 1st phase acquired in late spring of year following hatching and continuing until 3rd year.
- Skin of head/neck dark, Wing lining varies from mostly blackish to white mottled. Iris dark olive-brown.
- Beginning of 3rd year, neck becomes pink forming a ring. Often hidden by ruff but visible when soaring. Head colors begin to develop
- Sclera around eye changes from pink to reddish
- Ring-neck condition no longer distinct.
- White bar on upper surface of wing becomes prominent, but white of underwing may have dark area or dark streaks within it
- Sexually mature individuals at approximately 6 years
- Although unproven, birds probably mate for life
(Palmer 1988) (Toone & Risser 1988)
- 1901-1903 3 young birds acquired by National Zoo
- 1917 California Department of Fish & Game place bird on exhibit in Golden Gate Park, SF.
- 1967 Starving fledgling wanders into an area of summer homes. After unsuccessful reintroduction attempt, bird is given to the L.A. Zoo. This bird (Topatopa) was only California condor in captivity for 15 years.
- 1981 California Fish & Game Commission agrees to a captive breeding program for California condors (7/28/81).
- 1982 WAP receives a nestling from the wild. LA Zoo receives a wild fledgling
- 1982 Demonstration of replacement clutching in the wild dramatically effects captive breeding.
- 1983 First captive hatch - Sisquoc (egg laid in wild 2/2/83, brought to zoo 2/23/83 Hatched 3/30/83). Sent to WAP "condorminium"
- 1983-1986 16 eggs were collected and incubated at the San Diego Zoo. Of the 16, 14 were hatched and 13 reared (nearly double the 50% success rate in the wild
- 1987 Last bird brought in from wild is taken to WAP. Total captive population 27:
- 4 nestlings captured between 1982-1984
13 chicks hatched from eggs
9 trapped from free-flying population
1 LA Zoo bird abandoned by parents
- 1988 First fertile condor egg ever laid in captivity is hatched: 3/3/88-4/29/88
- ISIS captive population
(Rideout 2012) (Snyder 1989) (Toone & Wallace 1994) (Wilbur 1978)
- IUCN: Critically Endangered C2a(i);D ver 3.1 (BirdLife International 2012)
- CITES/Appendix: I
- Endangered Species Act (ESA): Endangered
History of Conservation Efforts
- 1905 California Fish & Game law prohibiting taking of nongame birds, their nests or eggs without a permit. No enforcement.
- 1937 Sisquoc Condor Sanctuary (1200 acres) established by US Forest Service.
- 1939 Carl B Koford begins extensive studies sponsored by the National Audubon Society
- 1947 Sepse Condor Sanctuary (35,000 acres)established by US Forest Service. Enlarged to 53,000 acres in 1951 (oil, gas and mineral leasing continued until 1970. Firearms not prohibited until 1972)
- 1952 SD Zoo Director Belle Benchley and K.C. Lint propose a captive breeding program for Condors based on Lint's success at breeding Andean Condors. A permit was issued to capture a pair of juvenile condors but the plan was thwarted by the National Audubon Society
- 1953 First legal protection specifically directed to the condor. California Fish & Game Code.
- 1965 Condor Advisory Committee formalized. Endangered Wildlife Research Program initiated at Patuxent wildlife Research Center, US Fish and Wildlife; Fred Sibley assigned to full-time research on condor
- 1966 Passage of Endangered Species Preservation Act.
- Directed Secretary of Interior to develop a register of endangered species. Condor included on first official list of endangered species in 1967
- Authorized expenditure of monies for endangered species habitat acquisition
- 1970 State of California Endangered Species Act passes. Condor listed as endangered in 1971
- 1971 Forest Service prepares "habitat management plan" for condors
- 1973 Passage of Endangered Species Act of 1973 makes taking of any endangered species a violation of federal law. Strengthened authority and responsibility of all federal agencies
- 1975 Approval of Condor Recovery Plan and formal recognition of Condor Recovery Team.
- 1979 Four major players: American Ornithologists Union, National Audubon Society, Fish and Wildlife Service of California and US Department of Fish & Game agree on a more aggressive research and captive breeding program. Arguments over the use of radiotelemetry and "hands-on-research" delay implementation
- 1982 First comprehensive photo census finds 21 birds. Building of a captive breeding population begun through the collection of wild-laid eggs. Major players are: US Fish & Wildlife, California Department of Fish & Game, San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park and the LA Zoo
- 1985 Approval given for capturing all remaining condors in the wild for captive breeding purposes
- 1987 Last California Condor is brought in from the wild on Easter Sunday. This young adult male joins 26 captive birds at the San Diego and Los Angeles Zoos.
- 1992 Captive population of 52 birds. 2 California condors and 2 Andean condors are released in the Los Padres National Forest 1/14. 10/6 - 1 California condor dies from ingestion of ethylene
glycol (a component of antifreeze) 6 more California condors released 12/1 Captive Population: 52, Wild Population 7
- 1993 SDWAP and LAZ at capacity with 71 birds. Flock of 12 Condors sent to Idaho's World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise to begin a third breeding colony. A more remote release site is constructed in Lion Canyon, in the Los Padres National Forest (Santa Barbara County). 4 birds from the Sespe area are recaptured and moved here along with additional captive-bred birds. Captive Population 66, Wild Population 9
- 1994 Due to loss of several birds, L.A. Zoo begins power-line and human aversion programs for all condor release candidates. Captive Population 85, Wild Population 3
- 1995 14 aversion-trained condors released at Lion Canyon/Castle Crags
(2/8 and 8/29). Captive Population 90, Wild Population 13
- 1996 6 parent-reared, aversion-trained condors are released at Vermillion cliffs (30 miles north of the Grand Canyon near the Utah-Arizona border) 12/12/96 Captive Population 92, Wild Population 28. Goal is to put 150 birds back in the wild in California and 150 in Arizona
- 1997 4 birds released in the Ventana Wilderness Area of Big Sur - 1/19. 2 birds die at Vermillion Cliffs (one from an encounter with a golden eagle and one from a power line accident) 4 nestlings are released at Vermillion cliffs. That same year, 20 birds are sent to Boise 11/25/97 from breeding centers. Total Population = 134
- 1998: 2 birds die from drowning in Lion's Canyon (Santa Barbara County). 19 chicks hatched. Total population=151. Captive population=116, wild population=35. Also in 1998, a second Arizona release aviary is established on Hurricane Cliffs (north of Grand Canyon) so that young chicks can develop survival skills without competition from older birds.
- 1999: 18 chicks hatched at 3 facilities: 5 at LA, 9 at San Diego, 4 at Boise. Further releases at Ventana and Hurricane Cliffs. Total population=161. Captive population=113, wild population=48
- 2000:Condor Ridge opens at the Wild Animal Park, May 27, 2000
- 2001: March 25, first egg laid by a wild, re-introduced California Condor in the Grand Canyon National Park. The egg was found broken, a common occurrence. Later this year 2 eggs are laid in the same nest. Scientists retrieve one because of probable incubation difficulties. Chick is hatched June 17, and is raised by a pair of captive birds
- 2002: April 11, First condor chick hatches in the wild (Ventura County) The chick’s parents were captive-reared at the Los Angeles Zoo and San Diego Wild Animal Park, then released into the wild at the age of one by the USFWS in 1995. Two more chicks later hatch but none survive.
- 2003: November 5, 1:30 p.m. First condor chick (#305) fledges at the Grand Canyon
- 2004: Three chicks hatch in California's Ventura county back country. There are now 97 condors living in the wild in California, Arizona and Baja. There are 124 Birds in captivity at the Wild Animal Park, L.A. Zoo and The Peregrine Fund's World Center for Birds of Prey; the Jonsson Center for Wildlife Conservation established in Oregon by the Oregon Zoo for condor recovery efforts.
- 2009: More than 169 condors successfully released in California, Arizona and Mexico through 2009.
- 2013: Total population: 410, including 230 in wild and 180 in captivity, as of 30 Sep 2012 (Global Raptor Information Network 2013)
- Population statistics are maintained by Arizona Game and Fish.
- Golden Eagles and black bears may prey upon young
- Common raven a threat to eggs
- Formerly: ceremonial use by several Indian tribes
- Made capes / bands of condor feathers
- Whistles from long bones of wing
- Fat taken from body cavity used medicinally; yearly sacrificial ritual
- Formerly: collection of museum specimens and eggs (Egg collection was popular around 1900 - as much as $300/egg)
- Reports that miners used quills to store gold dust (1 quill holds 10cc of fine sand)
- Hazardous foraging area (Nesting areas are almost 100% federally owned national forests, but foraging areas are almost 100% privately owned ranches used primarily for livestock grazing)
- Lead poisoning after ingesting pellets from animals killed by hunters.
- This contributing factor to near extinction of the condors is still a significant mortality factor today (Rideout et al. 2012)
- Ranchers put out carcasses laced with strychnine and cyanide to kill bears and coyotes that threaten their herds.
- Shooting / poaching
© 2009 San Diego Zoo Global. Minor update April 2013. Disclaimer: Although San Diego Zoo Global makes every attempt to provide accurate information, some of the facts provided may become outdated or replaced by new research findings. Questions and comments may be addressed to email@example.com.
Return to the Fact Sheet Index