California Condors are the rarest flying birds in North America. These endangered birds once hovered on the brink of extinction but now, thanks to a captive-breeding effort that began in 1987 when there were just 22 California condors left in the world, these magnificent birds are soaring in the skies over Utah’s majestic red-rock landscape.
One of the largest birds in North America with a wingspan of nearly 10 feet and weighing around 20 pounds, the California condor is a massive sight to behold. They soar through the skies at speeds up to 50 miles per hour, often traveling more than a hundred miles a day in search of food. They feed mainly on large animal carcasses, which often contain lead fragments. Lead poisoning has actually been one of the greatest detriments in the efforts to extend the condor population.
In spite of their scavenger lifestyle the California condor is known to preen their feathers often. They can live as long as 50 years, and mate for life. Both the male and female are attentive parents, and hover over their babies for several months before they take their first flight. The birds typically stay under their parents’ watchful care for a year or more, and reach maturity around age seven.
Part of the vulture family, the condor dates back to prehistoric times and once filled the skies in abundant numbers. But by 1987 people, power lines, pesticides and other environmental toxins had disturbed their natural habitat and taken their toll on the species. With just 22 condors remaining, and all living in California, they were captured and brought to the Los Angeles Zoo, San Diego Wild Animal Park, and the Peregrine Fund Facility in an attempt to extend the life of the species. Just four years later the condor was populated enough to be reintroduced into the wild. Radio transmitters and tags help scientists keep track of this still-endangered bird. But today they number more than 300, with approximately half living in the wild and the other remaining in captivity for conservation. The birds were released into three groups located in California, Baja, and northern Arizona. The condors seen flying over southern Utah are from the northern Arizona population.
Sightings are rare, but the best time to see the California condor around Utah's Bryce Canyon is during the summer months. Flocks of about 30 condors are commonly sighted in the Zion National Park area, and above the Vermillion Cliffs of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. If you are lucky enough to sight one of these rare, breathtaking creatures, keep your distance and do not try to feed them. Report your sighting to local park rangers, as it helps them keep track of their flying and roosting habits. And be sure to capture your once-in-a-lifetime sighting with your camera.