California condors — the Northern American birds with the widest wingspan pushing 10 feet and weighing up to 26 pounds — are the marquee attraction at Pinnacles National Park.
The birds can live up to 60 years making them one of the longest living birds on the planet. They have been brought back from the brink of extinction but are still critically endangered.
Condors do not migrate and are observed in this area year round. They move frequently within their expanding territory, so they may not always be seen inside the park.
Pinnacles’ condors have now ranged as far as Livermore to the north, Ventura County to the south, Big Sur to the west, and up through the Sierras near Mariposa to the east.
If you are going to visit Pinnacles and you hope to see a condor, one of the most likely viewing areas is the High Peaks in the early morning or early evening. The High Peaks can be reached from either entrance to the park, but keep in mind that hiking to the High Peaks is strenuous. Carry and drink plenty of water, wear layered clothing, and be prepared for temperature extremes.
Another location where the condors are frequently spotted is the ridge just southeast of the campground. Condors are often observed soaring on the morning thermals along the ridge and coming in to roost on their favorite trees in the evenings. Two spotting scopes have been placed in the Campground (on the Bench Trail near Pinnacles Visitor Center) that may help you get a closer look at these magnificent birds.
Remember that condors are free-flying, which means there is no guarantee you will see one on a given day at a given time.
Stay out of areas that are marked as closed to the public to protect the condors and other wildlife.
Condors are striking birds that can be viewed as ugly or majestic, depending on who you ask. Like many other vultures, condors are scavengers that eat only dead animals. They have bald heads, sharp hooked beaks and muscular necks, and large flat feet (instead of the seizing talons that characterize raptors). All of these features help condors feed efficiently on carcasses: their bald heads keep them cleaner during their often-gruesome feeding events, their strong necks and hooked beaks are used for pulling and tearing off chunks of meat, and their flat feet keep them firmly planted on the ground as they tug on their food.
Juvenile condors have black heads. As they age, their skin will slowly start to turn pink; during their “teenage years,” from around ages 3-5, they have a mottled pink and black visage. Once condors reach full maturity at around 6-7 years old, their head will have fully transitioned to a vibrant pink and orange color. Condors also have a thick “ruff” made of short, pointed feathers that they can raise up to fully cover their necks in colder temperatures.
One of the most common questions about condor identification is how to tell them apart from their smaller and much more common relative, the turkey vulture. While both birds are dark in color and have bald heads, they are actually quite different in appearance. Turkey vultures are much smaller, with a wingspan of about 5.5 feet compared to the condor’s 9.5 foot wingspan.
If you’re viewing the birds from below, you’ll notice the adult condor’s striking white triangle on the leading edge of the underside of their wings. (This patch is more of a mottled gray color in juvenile condors.) Turkey vultures, on the other hand, have silver-gray colored feathers on the trailing edge of the underside of their wings. You can also see that condors have large pink and orange heads, while turkey vultures have very small red heads.
Because underwing markings can be difficult to see when a bird is flying above you, the way that a condor holds its wings is often one of the best ways to identify it. In flight, condors tend to hold their wings flat and soar without any rocking back and forth. They do flap their wings, but not as often as other birds such as turkey vultures.
Turkey vultures hold their wings in a slight "V" pattern, and will rock side to side in the wind. Turkey vulture flight is often described as wobbly or unstable when compared to that of a condor.
Other large birds in the region include golden eagles and common ravens.
If you’re looking at a bird that is perching, look for a numbered wing tag. All California condors have at least one tag along the leading edge of their wing, and many have two.