When I visited the Grand Canyon a decade ago, I was treated to a rare sight: A California Condor sitting on a rock just 15 feet in front of us. It was huge – this thing could tear your face off!
I had no idea at that moment, but later research revealed it was one of only 322 such birds alive in the world. The Condors are a critically endangered species that now exists only in parts of California and Arizona and small patches of Utah and northern Mexico.
Condors are a big part of the wildlife of the Grand Canyon and their desperately needed assistance to return to their previous numbers.
Another condor watcher reported a similar experience at the Canyon. She saw three to six condors at the Grand Canyon, including one that sat on a rock in front of her just as mine did.
Where can you see California condors at the Grand Canyon? How many are currently left in the park, and in the U.S. overall? Read on for the most recent statistics on these fascinating birds.
California Condor Population Updates
Since my first Canyon visit 13 years ago, I’ve been pleased to see several positive updates on the California condor population in America.
In 2011, I was super excited to see this CNN article noting that the Condor population had rebounded to almost 400 total and 200 in the wild (the rest are in captive breeding programs.) The article discusses the efforts to rebuild their population and some of the environmental issues that continue to threaten the birds.
By 2016, the total population was up to 446, including 276 in the wild, located in Arizona, Utah, California, and a small portion of Baja California, Mexico.
As of the latest available figures, the NPS reports that precisely 537 California condors exist in the world. Of that total, 203 are in captive programs, and 334 are living in the wild. They reside primarily in California, Arizona, Utah, and the Baja Mexico region.
We don’t know exactly how many condors live at the Grand Canyon. The NPS stats indicate that 111 total condors live in the “Southwest region,” which includes all of Utah and Arizona.
So we can estimate that perhaps a few dozen condors live in the area immediately surrounding the Canyon.
Where’s the Best Place to See California Condors at the Grand Canyon?
With wild animals, there are never any guarantees about where you may see them. But obviously, based on reports of sightings in the past few years, most people are seeing them fly above the canyon rims or just inside the canyon.
That means your best bet is to visit the North Rim or South Rim, and keep your eyes peeled. Look up, and look down along the canyon walls to see if anything is flying around.
Both Yavapai Point and Lookout Studio at the South Rim are good places to look for condors. Plateau Point (off the Bright Angel Trail) is another good spot that can be reached from the South Rim.
The Vermillion Cliffs region is another area with frequent sightings. That’s the spot where many condors are released into the wild from captive breeding programs, so it makes sense that sightings would be common.
The Kaibab National Forest, just north of the Canyon, is also known to be home to multiple pairs of condors. And the Navajo Bridge area is also a spot where condors may be spotting soaring overhead or inside the canyon.
The condor I saw was right at the North Rim, on a short walking trail very near the visitor center.
How California Condors are Tracked
There are now enough condors in the wild that they’ve had to come up with sophisticated systems in order to track them. Most birds have a tag that displays their last two numbers.
Some, like the A7 I saw, have one number and one letter. If you see a bird with the tag “38,” for instance, that means it’s either bird #38, #138, #238, #338, or #438. To determine exactly which one, look at the color of the tag.
I haven’t found a source that definitively lists which numbers are represented by which colors. However, anecdotal evidence and scattered blog reports would seem to indicate that yellow tags are used for the 200s, and blue tags for either the 300s or 400s. If anyone finds a more reliable source on this matter, please comment or email with the info!
California Condors are among the heaviest birds in America, reaching 26 pounds, and their 10-foot wingspan is the widest.
Condors are scavengers who play a key role in the ecosystem by eating the decaying remains of other dead animals. Unfortunately, due to that diet, the birds are susceptible to lead poisoning.
When hunters and farmers shoot small animals, condors will eat the remains, including the fragments of ammunition lead, which causes them to get sick and die. Sadly, a full 50% of Cali condors die this way.
This is even an issue for the California condors at the Grand Canyon. Although there’s no hunting inside the national park, there’s still plenty of shooting in nearby areas of Arizona and Utah outside the park.
Following Up On My California Condor Grand Canyon Experience
As for that Condor I saw at the Grand Canyon (number A7, according to its tag), the ranger said he’d never seen one so close.
In fact, he was concerned that it didn’t seem afraid of people. It hung around for at least 15 minutes. We walked off to take a few pictures, and when we came back it was gone.
Since the bird was tagged, some online research allowed me to discover its fate. It turns out that condor A7 (and two others) had behavioral issues and were captured and sent to a sanctuary in Boise, Idaho for their own safety.
Now here’s where things get more confusing. Inexplicably, it seems that whoever assigns the numbers to these birds has begun reusing old tag numbers for new condor babies.
I guess the A7 bird I saw years ago must have passed away at some point. But I wish they wouldn’t re-use tag numbers to avoid the unnecessary confusion!
In any case, seeing a condor at the Grand Canyon ranks as my #2 most exciting wildlife encounter ever!
See also my articles about hiking the North Kaibab Trail, 10 fun facts about the Canyon itself, and all the different types of wildlife that can be found at the Canyon.
Would you be excited to see California condors at the Grand Canyon?