Why do California condors have bald heads?

A Matter of Hygiene: Condor Feeding

­The California condor's bald head is a perfect example of nature's efficient design. Condors are scavengers, living on a diet of carrion. Gross, right? Well, a dead and rotting animal is­n't the cleanest thing in the world, and the condo­r's head has evolved accordingly to help it feed itself. The lack of feathers prevents rotting guts and other matter from sticking to the bird's head when it feeds, since the condor will frequently stick its entire head into a carcass. We told you it was gross.

Ironically, however, the condor is a quite fastidious bird. After feeding, it routinely cleans itself by bathing in a nearby body of water. If there's no water around, it will simply rub its head and neck on nearby grass or rocks. It will spend hours cleaning, drying and fluffing its feathers. Of course, a lifetime of eating decaying food has strengthened its immune system so that it doesn't get sick. [source: San Diego Zoo].

Condors can glide up to 50 miles per hour (80 kilometers) and will travel up to 100 miles (160 km) per day looking for food [source: NPS]. You might assume that the condor finds its food via sense of smell, since carrion certainly has an odor. However, condors actually have a weak sense of smell and rely on sight when searching for food. Sometimes they'll just follow other birds, cementing their reputation as scavengers.

The condor's bald head also has the ability to change color. A condor's head and neck ranges in color from pink, red, orange, yellow or even light blue. It can deepen to a red or purple during courtship, or if the bird becomes angry or frightened. The condor also has a specialized sac on its throat that engorges during courtship and makes it appear larger.

To find out more about California condors and other birds, look at the links below.

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  • "Birds: California Condor." San Diego Zoo. 2008. (Dec. 23, 2008) http://www.sandiegozoo.org/animalbytes/t-condor.html
  • "California Condors." National Park Service. Dec. 10, 2008. (Dec. 23, 2008) http://www.nps.gov/grca/naturescience/california-condors.htm
  • "California Condor Background and Recovery." Defenders of Wildlife. 2008. (Dec. 23, 2008) http://www.defenders.org/programs_and_policy/wildlife_conservation/imperiled_species/california_condor/background_and_recovery.php
  • "California Condor: Gymnogyps californianus." Audubon. 2008. (Dec. 23, 2008) http://audubon2.org/watchlist/viewSpecies.jsp?id=56
  • "California Condor Recovery." Arizona Game and Fish Department. 2008. (Dec. 23, 2008) http://www.azgfd.gov/w_c/california_condor.shtml
  • "Condor Facts." Oregon Zoo. 2008. (Dec. 23, 2008) http://www.oregonzoo.org/Condors/facts.htm
  • "Milestones in California Condor Conservation." Conservation and Research for Endangered Species (CRES). Dec. 2008. (Dec. 23, 2008) http://cres.sandiegozoo.org/projects/sp_condors_milestones.html
  • Ritter, John. "Lead poisoning eyed as threat to California condor." USA Today. Oct. 23, 2006. (Dec. 23, 2008) http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2006-10-23-condor_x.htm