Index of Species Information

WILDLIFE SPECIES:  Gymnogyps californianus


WILDLIFE SPECIES: Gymnogyps californianus
AUTHORSHIP AND CITATION : Tesky, Julie L. 1994. Gymnogyps californianus. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: [].
ABBREVIATION : GYCA COMMON NAMES : California condor condor TAXONOMY : The currently accepted scientific name of the California condor is Gymnogyps californianus (Shaw). It is in the family Cathartidae. There are no recognized subspecies or races [1]. ORDER : Falconiformes CLASS : Bird FEDERAL LEGAL STATUS : California condors are listed as Endangered except in parts of Arizona, Nevada, and Utah, where they are listed as an Experimental Population, Non-Essential [29]. OTHER STATUS : California condors are listed as endangered by the state of California [39].


WILDLIFE SPECIES: Gymnogyps californianus
GENERAL DISTRIBUTION : Former range - California condors once ranged over much of western North America, from British Columbia to northern Baja California and east to Florida. California condors nested in western Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico until about 2,000 years ago. Populations persisted in the Pacific Coast region, especially in the Columbia Gorge area, until the 1800's, and in northern Baja California until the early 1930's [27]. Until 1985, when the last wild California condor was taken into captivity, they were found in the Coastal Ranges of California from Monterey and San Benito counties south to Ventura County, ranging, at least occasionally, north to Santa Clara and San Mateo counties and east to the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada and the Tehachapi Mountains. Breeding sites were confined to the Los Padres National Forest in Santa Barbara, Ventura, and extreme northern Los Angeles counties [3]. Current range - Currently all California condors that have been reintroduced into the wild from the captive breeding program are located in Santa Barbara County on the Los Padres National Forest [37] and in and around Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. ECOSYSTEMS : FRES21 Ponderosa pine FRES28 Western hardwoods FRES34 Chaparral-mountain shrub FRES42 Annual grasslands STATES :
BLM PHYSIOGRAPHIC REGIONS : 3 Southern Pacific Border KUCHLER PLANT ASSOCIATIONS : K005 Mixed conifer forest K030 California oakwoods K033 Chaparral K035 Coastal sagebrush K048 California steppe SAF COVER TYPES : 243 Sierra Nevada mixed conifer 245 Pacific ponderosa pine 249 Canyon live oak 250 Blue oak - foothills pine 255 California coast live oak SRM (RANGELAND) COVER TYPES : NO-ENTRY PLANT COMMUNITIES : Most nest sites known to be active since 1979 have been in a narrow belt of chaparral and coniferous forests. Two nests were located in giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) trees in mixed-conifer stands in the Sierra Nevada [15,27]. Typical foraging sites are in grasslands or oak savannah [27]. The principal plant species in nesting areas include several types of ceanothus (Ceanothus spp.), live oaks (Quercus spp.), chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum), silktassel (Garrya spp.), and poison-oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum). Interspersed with the brush are small groves of bigcone Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga macrocarpa) and small openings dominated by annual grasses [34]. In the recent past, California condor foraging areas in the Coast Ranges, the Tehachapi Mountains, and the foothills of the Sierra Nevada included vast areas of open grassland dominated by introduced annual grasses, particularly wild oats (Avena fatua) and cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) [34,40]. Some stretches were almost treeless; others had scatterings of oaks and southern California walnut (Juglans californica) [34]. Nonbreeding California condors also occupied mixed conifer stands in the higher portions of the Transverse Ranges. In the Sierra Nevada, sites above 6,000 feet (1,800 m) were used for summer roosting [34].


WILDLIFE SPECIES: Gymnogyps californianus
TIMING OF MAJOR LIFE HISTORY EVENTS : Age at sexual maturity - California condors do not breed until they are at least 6 years old and often not until they are 8 years old [27]. Breeding season - California condor pairs begin mating and selecting nesting sites in December, although many pairs wait until late spring [13,27]. The egg is laid between January and early April and is incubated by both parents [27]. The time required to complete a single nesting cycle may be more than 12 months, so some pairs nest every other year [19,27]. This pattern varies, however, depending on the abundance of food and the time of year that the nestling fledges [13]. Clutch size and incubation - California condors lay only one egg [27]. The egg is incubated for 56 to 58 days [13,19,27]. California condor will sometimes lay a second egg to replace an egg that is lost or broken [13,27]. Fledging - California condors fledge at about 5 or 6 months of age but do not become fully independent until they are at least 1 year old. The parents sometimes continue to feed the chick even after it has begun its own flights to foraging areas [13]. Longevity - The average life span of California condors is 15.5 years [30]. However, they may live to be 30 to 45 years old [27]. A captive California condor at the National Zoological Park in Washington D. C. lived for 45 years [14]. PREFERRED HABITAT : California condors inhabit rugged canyons, gorges, and forested mountains mainly between 985 and 8,860 feet (300-2,700 m) and nest primarily between 2,000 and 4,500 feet (610-1,372 m) [3]. Nesting habitat - Nesting sites are characterized by extremely steep, rugged terrain, with dense brush surrounding high sandstone cliffs [34]. Nests are often located in caves, crevices, potholes, and on ledges located on rock escarpments. Occasionally, they occur in natural cavities in the upper portions of large, living giant sequoia [13,19]. Contrary to previous assumptions, Snyder and others [25] found that California condors modify their nest site by constructing substrates of coarse gravel on which to rest the egg. The main physical requirements for a condor nesting site are: location in sheltered site, suitable roosting perches nearby, fairly easy approach from the air, space enough to hold two full-grown California condors, level area where walls are about 2 feet (0.6 m) apart, and perches nearby for the young bird when it leaves the nest [10]. Most nest caves face either northeast or southwest [30]. California condors do not defend a large nesting territory. Active nests have been located within 1 mile (1.6 km) of one another [34]. California condor pairs generally change nest sites in successive reproductive attempts. Nevertheless, the majority of nest sites have been used repeatedly, and California condors rarely appear to pioneer use of new sites [25]. Roosting areas - California condors require roost sites throughout their range for resting and for protection during periods of inclement weather [14]. They often have traditional roosting sites located near important foraging grounds and breeding areas [27]. Roosts located in breeding areas are often on cliffs or trees, especially snags or bigcone Douglas-fir. Roosts in the vicinity of foraging areas are usually found on tall, open-branched trees rather than on cliffs [20]. California condors commonly perch until mid-morning and return to the roost site in the late afternoon after foraging [13]. However, it is not uncommon for a California condor to stay perched throughout the day [27]. Foraging habitat - California condors require fairly open terrain for foraging because they need a long runway for easy takeoff and approach and so they can locate prey [27]. Atmospheric conditions suitable for soaring generally limit California condor foraging activity to warmer periods of the day [30]. Most foraging habitat is at lower elevations than breeding habitat, although there is considerable overlap. Although most known breeding sites are 20 miles (30 km) or more from principal foraging grounds, the birds cover such distances quickly [20]. Flights between foraging and breeding areas characteristically follow major ridgelines or proceed from one mountaintop to another. California condors formerly foraged along coastal shorelines and rivers, apparently using more varied habitats than they do presently. Current foraging areas are almost entirely on private land used principally for ranching [19]. Water requirements - California condors regularly drink from and bathe in freshwater pools. Suitable pools must provide easy access and takeoff, and be situated within a convenient distance of foraging areas [10]. Winter habitat - Winter habitat for California condors is the same as the habitat used throughout the rest of the year [20]. COVER REQUIREMENTS : California condor nest sites are located in areas that provide protection from storms, wind, and direct sun [34]. California condors prefer to forage on ridges and in open areas with short vegetation so they can easily locate prey and to ensure easy takeoff and approach [13,30]. Carcasses under brush are hard for California condors to see. They apparently cannot locate food by odor [27]. FOOD HABITS : California condors do not kill their own prey. They feed on the carcasses of a variety of animals. Ninety-five percent of their food is derived from domestic cattle, sheep, horses, and from ground squirrels (Spermophilus spp.) and mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus). They show a preference for deer and calves [10]. They also eat a variety of small mammals including jackrabbits (Lepus spp.) and cottontails (Sylvilagus spp.) [20]. Small mammal bones are an important source of calcium for California condors. Normally, the calcium necessary for egg production comes from the bones of small animal carcasses [36]. Domestic cattle carcasses are a primary food source for California condors and have become increasingly important as other prey species have declined throughout the California condor's range [13,27,22]. In the absence of supplemental feeding, changes in ranch management practices which reduce or eliminate carcasses on open rangeland may reduce the survival of the released California condor population [22]. PREDATORS : California condors have no known natural enemies besides humans [27]. However, potential predators include black bears (Ursus americanus), coyotes (Canis latrans), and ravens (Corvus spp.) [25]. MANAGEMENT CONSIDERATIONS : California condor populations have declined sharply since the early 1900's. The estimated population between 1966 and 1971 was 50 to 60 birds. The population dropped to nine after some six to eight birds died during the winter of 1984-1985, including members of four of the remaining breeding pairs. As a result of this loss the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the State of California Department of Fish and Game, the Los Angeles Zoo, and the Zoological Society of San Diego agreed that the remaining population should be placed in captivity until better protection could be afforded to wild birds. The last wild California condor was captured on April 19, 1987 [26]. Many factors have contributed to the decline in California condor numbers since the turn of the century. These include: (1) direct mortality through shooting, capture, egg collecting, and poisoning; (2) impairment of reproduction through pesticides, disturbance, and food scarcity; and (3) declining habitat caused by urbanization, agricultural development, changed ranching practices, and fire control [16]. Contaminants such as lead, organochlorides, organophosphates, predacides, and rodenticides present a continual hazard to California condor populations [21,22]. California condors ingest any poisons present in the carcasses they feed upon. Even if concentrations of poisons are not fatal to adults, they may kill chicks and immature birds [13]. California condor reaction to human disturbance varies with the duration and intensity of the disturbance and whether condors are nesting, roosting, or foraging [27]. Human disturbance normally will not cause California condors to abandon their nests, but it may discourage them from nesting in otherwise suitable habitat and may cause nest failure due to frequent long absences. Nests are often found closer to lightly used roads and intermittently used foot trails than to regularly travelled routes or oil well operations [27]. Roosting California condors are readily disturbed by either noise or movement. Disturbance late in the day may prevent roosting in that area that night. Occasional major disturbances do not cause California condors to abandon regularly used roosts, and they may adapt to general low-level disturbances. California condors usually feed in relatively isolated areas and usually leave if approached within 1,000 feet (300 m). They seldom feed on animals killed on highways or in areas of regular disturbance [34]. Habitat loss continues to pose a major long-term problem for California condors. Conversion of rangelands to agriculture, home sites, gas and oil developments, and other urban and industrial uses results in less available suitable habitat [22]. The future of the California condor now depends on the success of the captive breeding program and reintroduction of birds into the wild [22,32]. The current recovery plan calls for the reestablishment of two geographically distinct, self-sustaining wild populations, each numbering 100 individuals [26,27]. As of summer, 1994, there were four 1-year-old captive-bred California condors living in the wild in the Los Padres National Forest [37]. Possible future release sites include northern California, the Grand Canyon, and Baja California [2,23]. According to Rea [23] the most promising area for restoration of captive-bred California condors appears to be the Grand Canyon. This prime habitat contains extensive rugged terrain with open areas and strong updrafts. The inner gorge of the canyon has relatively limited human disturbance [23].


WILDLIFE SPECIES: Gymnogyps californianus
DIRECT FIRE EFFECTS ON ANIMALS : Fire may directly reduce California condor reproductive success if chicks or eggs are lost due to burning, smoke inhalation, or stress. For these reasons, fall burning near nest sites could have adverse effects on newly hatched California condors [17]. Fire suppression activities could cause impacts such as nest abandonment, egg breakage by a disturbed adult, or increased disturbance from road construction and brush elimination [27]. HABITAT RELATED FIRE EFFECTS : Fire may enhance California condor habitat by creating snags for future roost sites and improving foraging habitat. California condors occur in or have recently occupied the following five major fire-dependent plant associations in the western United States: grasslands, chaparral, ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), and giant sequoia [12]. In all of these communities, fire exclusion reduces openings and increases shrub or tree cover. Fire exclusion also allows fuels to accumulate which increases the potential for large, severe fires. Large, severe fires may destroy roost trees [4]. Periodic fire is instrumental in maintaining a relatively open grass-shrub structure in chaparral communities [4], which enhances California condor access to carcasses. Additionally, fire may improve habitat for small mammals, which are essential in California condor diets. Many small mammals decline when ground cover is not periodically reduced by fire, so California condors must feed on the carcasses of larger animals. Since they cannot swallow the larger bones, they may not be able to obtain sufficient calcium in their diets [5]. Occasional fire in chaparral can maintain a mixture of edge and grasslands, improving habitat for small mammals several fold [36]. Fire has contributed to the maintenance of some grasslands by reducing woody vegetation, while the exclusion of fire has resulted in encroachment of trees and shrubs in those ecosystems [12]. Additionally, fire is an important factor in maintaining the openness of oak savannahs [38]. FIRE USE : Prescribed burning may be used to improve condor foraging habitat and reduce the chance of large, severe fires [27]. Burning should be deferred until nesting is completed in areas where impact to breeding California condors may occur [4]. FIRE REGIMES : Find fire regime information for the plant communities in which this species may occur by entering the species name in the FEIS home page under "Find Fire Regimes".


WILDLIFE SPECIES: Gymnogyps californianus
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Portland, OR: U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service. 110 p. [+ appendices]. [23095] 28. Ronco, Frank. 1970. Engelmann spruce seed dispersal and seedling establishment in clearcut forest openings in Colorado--a progress report. Res. Note RM-168. Fort Collins, CO: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station. 7 p. [16496] 29. U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service. 2016. Endangered Species Program, [Online]. Available: [86564] 30. Verner, Jared. 1978. California condors: status of the recovery effort. Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW-28. Berkeley, CA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Forest and Range Experiment Station. 30 p. [20666] 31. Verner, Jared; Boss, Allan S., tech. coords. 1980. California wildlife and their habitats: western Sierra Nevada. Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW-37. 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