A California condor rests in an aviary in Big Sur, California. The California condor is a scavenger, meaning it feeds primarily on carrion (dead animals). Its head is bald to prevent disease and infection from developing in feathers as the bird digs its head into animal carcasses.

Photograph by Stuart Thornton

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  • The bald head and strong beak of this California condor are not fashion statements—they are useful adaptations.

    Like all vultures, California condors are scavengers. They eat the carcasses of dead animals. When they eat, the birds often insert their entire heads into the belly of a carcass, which is full of harmful bacteria. The lack of feathers keeps bacteria and rotting, decomposing flesh from sticking to the condor's head.

    The California condor's beak is large and powerful. It is also very sharp. It needs to be, in order to feed on carcasses. The beaks of California condors are strong enough to break the bones of animals such as goats and pigs. They are sharp enough to tear the tough hide of horses and cattle.

    Despite their fierce appearance, however, California condors are no danger to people or pets.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    adaptation Noun

    a modification of an organism or its parts that makes it more fit for existence. An adaptation is passed from generation to generation.

    Encyclopedic Entry: adaptation
    bacteria Plural Noun

    (singular: bacterium) single-celled organisms found in every ecosystem on Earth.

    beak Noun

    hard, protruding jaws of a bird.

    California condor Noun

    largest land bird of North America, with a wingspan of 3 meters (9.5 feet).

    carcass Noun

    dead body.

    cattle Noun

    cows and oxen.

    fierce Adjective

    wild or savage.

    hide Noun

    leather skin of an animal.

    scavenger Noun

    organism that eats dead or rotting biomass, such as animal flesh or plant material.

    Encyclopedic Entry: scavenger
    vulture Noun

    bird that mostly eats dead animals.