Species Profile: Andean Condor
(Photo by Jonny Miller: rescued condors to be released into the wild by Conservacion Patagonica)
By Frances Iannucci (University of Vermont ’15)
The Andean condor (Vultur gryphus) is a member of the vulture family. With a wingspan of up to 3.2 m, it ranks as the fifth largest bird in the world. Adult condors are predominantly black, with a white ruff of feathers around the neck and large white patches on their wings. Their dull red, featherless heads flush in accordance with their mood, allowing for communication between individuals. This communication is especially useful, given that condors lack a larynx and therefore cannot call or sing like other birds. Males are characterized by a dark red comb, or caruncle, on top of their heads. However, the adult coloration does not develop until after their first molting; juveniles have brown feathers and a blackish head. Condors’ talons are adapted more for walking than for use as weapons, and their hooked beaks are well suited to tearing the rotting meat they feed on. In flight, condors can be easily distinguished by the eight primary feathers at the end of each wing. Aside from the comb on males, other forms of sexual dimorphism also exist. Males and females have different colored eyes (males are yellowish-brown, and females are red), and males are typically larger than females.
Range and Distribution:
As its name suggests, the Andean condor is found throughout the Andes in South America. Their range includes parts of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, and western Argentina, ending at Tierra del Fuego. Formerly abundant in all parts of this range, it is now extremely rare in the north (i.e., Venezuela and Colombia) due to human activity.
Ideal habitat for the Andean condor consists of rocky, mountainous areas with adjacent open, non-forested habitat for foraging. In Patagonia, they can also be seen over the southern beech forests. Condors are found in alpine areas up to 5,000 m in elevation, preferring to roost on high, rocky cliffs so they can expend less energy during takeoff. Open areas such as rocky areas, grasslands, and coastal zones are preferred for foraging so that carcasses can be easily spotted from the air. A condor can commonly be seen soaring motionlessly over vast territories in search of food, relying on thermals to stay aloft without expending energy. They will often travel over 200 km a day looking for carcasses on the landscape below.
Life begins on an inaccessible rock ledge for a condor, often in a nest of a few sticks, but sometimes just in a bare rock cranny. As some of our current Round River students have experienced, parents can be quite protective of their roosting area. The mother will lay one to two eggs at a time, then the parents incubate them for about 60 days until they hatch. The chicks are born flightless and covered in gray down, and will remain this way for six to seven months. If an egg or chick is lost, a new egg will be laid to replace it.
After seven months, the young condor is considered a juvenile, and looks like a brown, slightly smaller version of its parents. A juvenile condor will remain with its parents for the first two years of its life, learning to hunt. After two years, the parents lay a new clutch of eggs, effectively displacing the juvenile.
The condor does not reach sexual maturity until about age seven. At this point, it will have acquired its black and white adult coloration. Males will court prospective females by inflating its neck, spreading its wings, and standing erect while hissing or clucking. A degree of hopping and dancing is also involved. If the male is successful, the pair will mate for life; a considerable commitment, as condors can live up to 75 years!
The Andean condor is a carrion feeder, meaning it is a scavenger of dead animals. They tend to feed on the largest carcass available so they can get the most out of their meal. Depending on location, their natural diet could include llamas, alpacas, rheas, armadillos, and guanacos; however, they also commonly target domestic animals such as cattle, horses, sheep, goats, and dogs, which have become quite prevalent in much of their range. In marine areas, many will feed on the carcasses of beached whales. On occasion, condors will also hunt small, live animals such as birds, rodents or rabbits.
Condors locate carcasses by smelling a specific chemical emitted in the early stages of decay. They will also follow other scavengers to the site of a meal. Several birds will often be seen flocking around a single carcass. Somewhat picky eaters, condors will typically gorge themselves on a carcass, then go several days without food while searching for the next prime meal.
A condor’s scavenging habits serve more purpose than simply feeding that individual; benefits are also bestowed on the rest of the ecosystem. The strong beaks of condors can rip open large carcasses that smaller vultures could not ordinarily access. While the condor is always the dominant scavenger in its territory, its feeding habits still provide a food source for lesser scavengers. As is true of any carrion-feeder, the condor’s feeding habits serve a greater ecological function of cleaning up carcasses from the landscape, which would otherwise create breeding grounds for disease.
While adult condors have no natural predators, eggs and chicks could potentially be taken by a fox or bird of prey. However, predation is rare due to the vigilant protection provided by the parents.
The Andean condor is a national symbol of many countries in its geographic range, including Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. In Chile, it received this status in 2006. While many see the condor as an awe-inspiring icon of the Andes and South America, this view is certainly not unanimous, and perceptions of the condor have changed much throughout history.
Pre-Columbian peoples revered the condor, viewing them as a symbol of power and health. Andean mythology associates the condor with the sun deity, and it was believed to be the ruler of the upper world. Condors have appeared in Andean art since 2500 BCE, serving as an inspiration to indigenous cultures. The Incas believed the condor to be immortal due to its longevity, and their mythology claims that a condor, upon feeling its old age, will choose to commit suicide by spiraling down into the mountains, and consequently be reborn.
Upon the arrival of Spanish conquistadors, however, the condor gained a new reputation of being a thief of livestock. The resulting persecution of condors has led to drastic populations declines over the past several centuries. Remnants of this attitude persist to this day, especially among farmers who perceive their livestock to be threatened.
Some hunting of condors also occurs for traditional or ceremonial purposes. Certain body parts are believed to have magical or medicinal properties in some cultures. Their feathers are also commonly used in cultural activities such as folk dances. In a particular Peruvian festival known as the Yawar Fiesta, a condor is captured and forced to fight a bull, after which the community gets the bird drunk in celebration. While this is meant as a great celebration of the victory of Andean peoples over the Spanish, it often results in the death of the bird.
The Andean condor is currently listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN, meaning the potential for extinction exists throughout much if not all of its geographic range. All the major threats to condor populations stem from human activity, including foraging habitat loss, poisoning from eating animals killed by hunters, and active hunting and persecution. Condors are particularly vulnerable to hunting pressures due to their slow reproduction rate, reflecting their adaptation to a life without predators.
Many captive breeding programs are currently in place, with the goal of releasing new condors into the wild. The facilities take advantage of the condor’s habit of replacing lost eggs by removing and hand-raising the first chick, while letting the condor raise the second chick itself. The removed chicks are raised using condor puppets to prevent imprinting on humans during their time in captivity.
Reintroduction efforts by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) began in the 1980s. The first reintroduction experiment occurred in 1988, following the removal of all the remaining California condors from the wild. After the successful experimental reintroduction of female Andean condors into the California ecosystem, the birds were recaptured, and reintroduction efforts began in their native range in 1989.
Chile and Argentina are the two countries most actively pursuing condor conservation efforts. Beginning in 2000, the two countries joined forces in a binational program for the conservation of the condor, focusing on protecting and studying the species. Chile’s Centro de Rehabilitacion para las Aves has been particularly instrumental in condor conservation, facilitating the rescue and rehabilitation of more than 100 condors to be released into the wild. Additionally, the released birds are fitted with GPS tracking devices, allowing scientists to collect information on their survival, flight patterns, social interactions, and breeding habitat. Recently, Conservacion Patagonica has also been active in the conservation of condors, releasing three juvenile condors this past month in the Aysen Region of Chile.