It usually measures about 1.2 m (4 feet) from the point of the beak to the extremity of the tail, and 3 m (10 feet) between the tips of its wings.
The head and neck have no feathers, and the head, which is much flattened above, is in the male crowned with a caruncle or comb, while the skin of the neck in the male lies in folds, forming a wattle.
The adult plumage is of a uniform black, with the exception of a frill of white feathers nearly surrounding the base of the neck, and certain wing feathers which, especially in the male, have large patches of white. The middle toe is greatly elongated, and the hinder one but slightly developed, while the talons of all the toes are comparatively straight and blunt, and are thus of little use as organs of prehension. The female, contrary to the usual rule among birds of prey, is smaller than the male.
The South American condor prefers roosting and breeding at elevations of 3,000 to 5,000 m (10,000 - 16,000 ft). There, during the months of February and March, on inaccessible ledges of rock, it deposits two white eggs, from 3 to 4 inches in length, its nest consisting merely of a few sticks placed around the eggs.
The period of incubation lasts for seven weeks, and the young are covered with a whitish down until almost as large as their parents. They are unable to fly till nearly two years old, and continue for a considerable time after taking wing to roost and hunt with their parents. The white ruff on the neck, and the similarly coloured feathers of the wing, do not appear until the completion of the first moulting.
On wing the movements of the condor, as it wheels in majestic circles, are remarkably graceful. The birds flap their wings on rising from the ground, but after attaining a moderate elevation they seem to sail on the air. Charles Darwin commented on having watched them for half an hour without once observing a flap of their wings.
Humans have done significant damage to the condor population. The California condor is in danger of extinction; at one point, only about two dozen individual birds were left alive (2002 population stands at about 200). Significant damage to the condor population is attributed to hunting, DDT poisoning, and habitat destruction. In the 1980s and 1990s, a captive breeding program was undertaken to try to restore the species.