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California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomic History


  • One of seven species of New World Vultures (Family Cathartidae) (D'Elia and Haig 2013; Campbell 2015)
    • 7 species, 5 genera
    • Characteristics
      • Featherless heads and necks
      • Long, broad wings
      • Stiff tail (for soaring)
      • Clawed, but weak feet
      • Lack a syrinx or voice box
        • Hiss and grunt only
      • Slightly hooked bill
      • Skull shape different from raptors
    • New World Vultures not closely related to Old World Vultures
      • Superficially similar due to convergent evolution
  • Incorrect, former classifications of New World Vultures
    • Once placed in Order Falconiformes (Ericson et al. 2006; Hackett et al. 2008)
      • Based grouping with falcons on presence of talons and hooked bills
    • Also once incorrectly thought to be allied with storks (Hackett et al. 2008)


  • Family Cathartidae (van Dooren 2011)
    • Derived from the Greek ‘kathartes,’ meaning a cleanser or purifier
  • Genus: Gymnogyps (JIM-no-jips) (Lederer and Burr 2014)
    • Gymno: Greek for "naked" or "bare"
    • Gyps: Greek word for vulture
    • California Condor is the only living member of this genus (Campbell 2015)
  • Species: californianus (Snyder and Snyder 2005)
    • “Of California”/Baja California


  • Scientific names
    • Vultur californianus (Shaw 1797)
    • Once placed in genus Pseudogryphus (del Hoyo et al. 1994)
  • Common names (Snyder and Snyder 2005)

Common names (Birdlife International 2015; Checklist of CITES species)

  • California Condor (English)
    • Becomes widely used in mid-19th century (Snyder and Snyder 2005)
  • Cóndor Californiano, Cóndor de California (Spanish)
  • Condor de Californie (French)
  • “Condor” (van Dooren 2011; Lederer and Burr 2014)
    • Probably derived from the Quechua name for condors, cuntur or kuntur
      • Quechua: a people of the central Andes of South America
    • Name extended from the Andean Condor of South America to the California Condor
  • Many names used by native peoples
    • See sources listed by Snyder and Snyder (2000)
    • Sul, wech, niniyot, mo’lok, moloku, holhol, panes, almiyi, huyawit (Snyder and Snyder 2000)

Evolutionary History

Fossil history and evolutionary relationships

  • New World Vultures have a long evolutionary history (Campbell 2015; Johnson et al. 2016)
    • Species diversity increased during the Miocene, beginning ~14 mya (Johnson et al. 2016)
      • Correlated with diversification of mammals that condors likely fed upon
    • Gymnogyps, Vultur, and Breagyps are closely related, but distinct (Emslie 1988)
  • Fossils of California Condors date back to the Pleistocene, about 40,000 years ago (Emslie 1988; Snyder and Snyder 2000)
  • Modern California Condors are descendents of a Pleistocene Era condor, Glymnogyps amplus or G. californianus amplus (Syverson and Prothero 2010; Campbell 2015)
    • Taxonomic debate: sometimes considered a distinct species, sometimes a subspecies
    • Slightly larger than modern California Condors
    • Similar morphology
      • Little change over time, despite drastic changes in climate
    • Diverged in the early Holocene, 7,000-9,000 years ago

Closest known (extant) relatives (Johnson et al. 2016)

  • Vultur gryphus (Andean Condor)
  • Sarcoramphus papa (King Vulture)

Other close (extinct) relatives (Emslie 1988; Finkelstein et al. 2015a)

  • G. kofordi (Florida; extinct)
  • G. howardae (Peru; extinct)
  • G. varonai, G. amplus (extinct)
    • Sometimes treated as extinct subspecies
  • Breagyps clarki (extinct)

Cultural History

Recent history of the California Condor

  • Drastic population declines during the 20th century (Birdlife International 2015)
    • Persecution
    • Lead poisoning from ingestion of lead bullets and shot from carcasses
  • 1967: Designated an endangered species under federal law (D'Elia and Haig 2013)
  • 1971: Designated an endangered species under California state law (California Department of Fish and Wildlife 2014)
  • 1973: U.S. Endangered Species Act passes; additional protections added to 1967 provisions
  • 1975 (D'Elia and Haig 2013)
    • California Condor Recovery Team is established
    • First Condor Recovery Plan adopted
  • 1982: Only 22 birds remain (20 wild, 2 in managed care); an all-time low (Birdlife International 2015)
  • 1983
    • Wild eggs brought into managed care; first chicks hatched and raised in managed care (Birdlife International 2015)
    • San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance hatches its first California Condor chick (Snyder and Snyder 2000)
  • 1985: Loss of 40% of remaining wild California Condors (D'Elia and Haig 2013)
    • Catastrophic loss; cause unknown
    • <10 birds remain in the wild
    • Discussions of whether to trap all remaining wild condors
  • 1987: All surviving wild birds brought into managed care (Birdlife International 2015)
    • Join breeding colonies in managed care at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and Los Angeles Zoo
    • 27 birds remain (10 reared in the wild, 17 reared in managed care)
  • 1987-1992: Species is extinct in the wild (Birdlife International 2015)
  • 1992: First managed care raised California Condors released into the wild in California (D'Elia and Haig 2013)
  • 1994: Program begins training managed care bred or rehabilitated condors to avoid power line poles
  • 2002: Breeding in the wild resumes, after reintroductions (Birdlife International 2015)
  • 2015: 435 California Condors living (last population census at the time of this writing)
    • 268 in the wild
    • 167 in managed care
  • Also see A Brief History of Conservation Efforts


  • Documentary films (selected titles)
    • The Condor’s Shadow – 2013, Good Eye Films
      • Scientists and zookeepers describe the California Condor’s recovery
    • Condors: Back to the Wild; Animal Attractions – 2010, PBS
      • Explores the San Diego Zoo’s role in preventing the California Condor’s extinction
    • Captive Breeding Success Stories; The Loneliest Animals 2009, PBS
      • Season 27 of Nature
        • Half-hour episode discusses California Condor reintroduction program
    • California Condor – 1986, PBS/National Audubon Society Productions
      • Narrated by Robert Redford

Books and literature (selected titles)


  • Rock art (Snyder and Snyder 2000)
    • Pictographs of condors found at many cave sites

Condors of early North America: symbolism, culture, and folklore

  • California Condors of symbolic importance to native peoples living within its historic range (Snyder and Snyder 2000)
    • See D’Elia and Haig (2013) and Snyder and Snyder (2000) for discussion
  • Mythical thunderbirds prominent in tribal stories and art in the Pacific Northwest, north to Alaska (D'Elia and Haig 2013)
    • Condors helped inspire thunderbird mythology in some tribes
      • Said to be rulers of storms, throwing down thunderbolts
      • Controlled weather
      • Brought justice
    • Misattributed to tribes which did not have contact with California Condors
      • 1960s and 1970s: Association between California Condors and thunderbirds popularized by several books
    • See D’Elia and Haig (2013), p. 34-36
  • Prehistoric (Late Pleistocene/Holocene) and pre-Columbian eras (Simons 1983; Snyder and Snyder 2000; D'Elia and Haig 2013; Campbell 2015, and as noted)
    • Bone and feather artifacts
    • Representations in rock art
    • Spiritual-ceremonial significance
      • Condors seen as a source of power
      • Ceremonies sacrificing condors performed in memory of revered leaders
        • Commonly practiced in some regions (e.g., Sacramento Valley, southern California)
        • Condors taken as nestlings
      • Ceremonies performed for living birds
        • Some released
      • Burials performed for condors (Wallace and Lathrap 1959)
        • Resembled human burials
      • Use of condor body parts
        • Condor dances; participants wore condor skin and feathers
        • Initiation ceremonies for new shamans
        • Rituals to cure disease
  • Unclear whether or not the use of condors for cultural purposes depressed condor populations before the arrival of Europeans (D'Elia and Haig 2013)
    • Ceremonial killings routine among some native tribes; among others, condors were revered and killing them was taboo

Vultures (general): symbolism, culture, and folklore (van Dooren 2011)

  • Overall, vultures are portrayed negatively in culture (vultures, general)
    • Associated with death, decay, disease, stench, indelicacy, laziness, greed
      • Particularly financial and political greed
    • For interesting discussion of the psychological aspects of vulture depictions, see Chapter 2 of van Dooren (2011)
  • Positive symbolic associations (vultures, general)
    • Funerary rites
      • Thought of as caretakers of the dead
      • Common portrayal in areas of India and Tibet
        • A deceased person’s body is exposed for vultures
        • Part of religious rituals
    • Creation
      • North American Native American stories
        • The Great Buzzard shaping and nourishing landscapes with its wingbeats
        • Depicted as cunning, suspicious, insightful, helpful, magical
    • Protection
      • Portrayed as ideal parents/mothers
        • Egyptians, Greeks
      • Portrayed as noble and caring
    • Clairvoyant powers, prophecy, or otherworldly knowledge
      • Greece and Rome
        • Likely came from vultures’ arriving before an animal dies or prior to a battle
      • Zulu cultures
      • Has inspired traditional medicine practices in Africa
        • Ingesting vulture body parts (brain, heart, feet) believed to boost intelligence/insightfulness
  • Negative symbolic associations (vultures, general)
    • With abandonment/being abandoned
      • Being “left to the vultures/buzzards” circling or waiting nearby
      • This cultural meaning is present in the West and other cultures without ‘caretaker’ symbolism
    • With mass death of warfare in some ancient cultures
      • Sumer/Assyria/ancient Mesopotamia
      • Egypt
  • Other symbolic associations (vultures, general)
    • With ritual sacrifice
      • Central and South America
    • With royal power
      • Chinese mythology


Kingdom: Animalia

Class: Aves

Order: Accipitriformes (New World Vultures, Secretary Bird, kites, hawks, eagles, and Osprey)

Family: Cathartidae (New World Vultures)

Genus: Gymnogyps (Lesson 1842)

*Species: Gymnogyps californianus

*Describer (Date): Shaw (1797)
As Vultur californianus in Shaw and Nodder's Naturalist's Miscellany, Vol. 9, plate 301 and text.
Amadon (1977) retained Gymnogyps.

IOC World Bird Family Index Checklist. Version 6.4; [accessed 01 Nov 2016].
Campbell (2015)

Early Rendering

a plate of a CA Condor

An 1840 drawing of a California Condor by J.J. Audubon.

Although this species label reads "Californian Turkey Vulture," the common name of California Condor would become widely used in the mid-19th century.

This illustration appears as the first plate in Audubon's remarkable The Birds of America: From Drawings Made in the United States and Their Territories.

Image Credit: © Biodiversity Heritage Library. Some rights reserved.

Ritual Garments

a CA Condor plum skirt made by Native Americans

A skirt of California Condor feathers is held by Edwin Davis of Mesa Verde (San Diego County, California). This skirt was made for Davis by Native Americans.

In 1940, Carl B. Koford took this photo while conducting the first natural history study of California Condors.

Image credit: © University of California Berkeley, Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. All rights reserved. MVZ record #10151; Used with the permission of The Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California, Berkeley.

Image note: This is a cropped image.

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