Courtship Display of California Condors

Prior to 1973, the courtship display of the California condor had been described (Koford 1953, Wilbur and Borneman 1972), but no photographs of the event had been published. On 31 January 1973, I had the opportunity to photograph a pair in courtship in the Sespe Condor Sanctuary (Los Padres National Forest), Ventura County, California. I had seen similar activity 20 February 1970, 26 February 1971, 3 February 1972, and 14 December 1972. The photos are not particularly sharp, and I suspect that a lot of courtship photos have been taken since the captive breeding program began. Still, I think this is interesting as one of the few photo records of how the original, pre-captive breeding, condors behaved. By way of explanation:

At 1006 on 31 January 1973, two adult condors were on the ground near a deer carcass we had placed as supplemental feed. One golden eagle and several ravens were also near the carcass. One condor, the presumed male, half-opened its wings, with the primary feathers hanging vertically. With neck extended and head bowed, the "male" swayed from side to side in front of the "female." While at close quarters, the "male" twice kicked one foot at the bowed head of the "female' (described by Koford 1953:77). "He" then turned and walked some 10 meters away from the "female," still swaying from side to side with head bent forward. The "female" followed about half the distance, then the "male" turned and came back toward her, still displaying. The courtship ended at 1010 when the eagle, which had been standing on the deer carcass and feeding, flew away. Both condors moved quickly to the carcass and began to feed.

At 1105 five adult condors and several ravens were at the carcass, but only one condor was actively feeding. Another condor (from general appearance, probably the "male" from the earlier courtship) displayed to the feeding bird, then walked around the carcass, displaying to the group collectively. None of the condors responded to the displaying bird. Courtship activity ceased after several minutes when two golden eagles flushed the condors and ravens from the carcass.

During each observation, the neck and cheeks of the displaying condor were much distended; the bright red chest patch was inflated prominently; the orange head was especially bright; and the bluish-gray band at the base of the neck appeared as a pale ring, with a conspicuous rose-red spot on the ventral side below the bill. The condor at whom each display was directed, and also one other bird in the group, also had distended necks and cheeks, but their color was not as intense as that of the displaying bird. The remaining condors were duller in color, and no swelling of head, neck, or check patch was evident. Bright coloration and distension of head and neck may be general indications of reproductivereadiness in adult California condors, although I have observed similar characteristics in a captive California condor that had undergone periods of exertion and excitement.

Poulsen (1963) noted that an Andean condor may display when not in the presence of other condors. On 2 February 1973, John C. Borneman and I observed an adult California condor roosting alone on a rock cliff. It sat quietly through the morning hours, preening occasionally. At 1205 it began swaying from side to side, walking in small circles with head and neck drooped forward and wings half opened. All actions were similar to those described above, except the stooped posture was less pronounced and the neck and head were neither swollen nor intensely colored. The condor displayed for perhaps one minute, sat quietly for another minute, then left its perch and circled out of sight.

Everything reported above is in full agreement with Koford (1953:77-80). He assumed that only the male California condor actively displays, and I never saw anything to indicate otherwise. I was never close enough to displaying condors to know if their courtship is accompanied by hissing or other sounds, as is that of the Andean condor (Whitson and Whitson 1969, Gailey and Bolwig 1973).

Postures of displaying California condors are very similar to those described for Andean condors. However, if published photographs are representative, the Andean condor holds its body more nearly vertical than does the California condor, and does not bend its neck as far forward (Whitson and Whitson 1969, fig. 1; Gailey and Bolwig 1973, Figs.. 1c, 1e, 5). Gailey and Bolwig (1973, fig. 1d) showed a female Andean condor with head and neck bent far downward and inward, but its wings were held almost fully open as in the "sunning" position. Among the pictures of displaying Andean condors, one of a male bird in Poulsen (1963, fig. 4) most closely resembles the posture of the California condor.

The display posture of the California condor gives prominence to most of the bird's brilliant colors and striking patterns. The orange of the head, the gray neck ring, and most of the red chest patch are conspicuous to the display partner. The white patches under the wings flash almost like mirrors as the bird sways from side to side. Only the rose pink neck spot and a portion of the red chest patch are obscured from view.

Postures to those described above are adopted by other cathartid vultures, but differences in coloration do not result in similar emphasis. For example, the black vulture does not have striking plumage patterns. Color and pattern may assist or reinforce the courtship behavior of the California condor, but the ceremony itself is probably phylogenetically the older character (Lorenz 1937).

Literature Cited

Gailey, J., and N. Bolwig. 1973. Observations on the behavior of the Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus). Condor 75:60-68.

Koford, C. B. 1953. The California Condor. National Audubon Society, Research Report 4.

Lorenz, K. 1937. The companion of the bird's world. Auk 54:245-273.

Poulsen, H. 1963. On the behavior of the South American Condor (Vultur gryphus L.). Z. Tierpsychol. 20:468-473.

Whitson, M., and P. Whitson. 1969. Breeding behavior of the Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus). Condor 71:73-75.

Wilbur, S. R., and J. C. Borneman. 1972. Copulation by California Condors. Auk 89:444-445.


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Sanford Wilbur 2021