Andean condors (Vultur gryphus) inhabit most of western South America in the mountains and deserts ranging from western Venezuela south to Tierra del Fuego. Andean condors can be found in Columbia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and Argentina. The wild population was thought to be extirpated from Venezuela but is very rarely still seen there.
In an isolated network of mountain peaks in the Andes of Columbia and Ecuador, the population is thought to be in decline. Populations reach much higher densities in the regions south of the Northern Peruvian Low, were they inhabit vast areas of highland prairie, desert, and coastal regions.
Biogeographic Regions: neotropical (Native )
- Hendrickson, S., R. Bleiweiss, J. Matheus, L. de Matheus, N. Jácome, E. Pavez. 2003. Low Genetic Variability in the Geographically Widespread Andean Condor. The Condor, 105/1: 1-12. Accessed January 11, 2010 at http://www.jstor.org/stable/1370600.
- Rios-Uzeda, B., R. Wallace. 2007. Estimating the size of the Andean Condor population in the Apolobamba Mountains of Bolivia. Journal of Field Ornithology, 78/2: 170-175.
- Clements, J. F., T. S. Schulenberg, M. J. Iliff, D. Roberson, T. A. Fredericks, B. L. Sullivan, and C. L. Wood. 2014. The eBird/Clements checklist of birds of the world: Version 6.9. Downloaded from http://www.birds.cornell.edu/clementschecklist/download/
Colombia to Chile and Argentina
Andean condors have dark feathers in maturity (while juveniles are olive-grey and brown), with a white collar or downy plumage around the base of their necks. They also have white flight feathers on their wings as adults, with those of the male being more pronounced. When extended, the wing tips have gaps between the primaries which is an adaptation for soaring. The head and neck of adult condors are bare of feathers and are generally black to dark reddish brown, while juveniles have much darker skin and young hatchlings have fluffy grey down on their bodies. This baldness is presumably a hygienic adaptation, as the bare skin is easier to keep clean and dry after feeding on carrion. The beak is hooked at the end and functions in tearing rotting meat off a corpse. The bases of their upper and lower mandibles are dark with the rest of the beak being ivory colored. Andean condors weigh between 7.7 and 15 kg and range from 97.5 to 128 cm in length. Their wingspan of 3.2 m is the longest wingspan of any land bird.
Andean condors are the only species in the family Cathartidae that exhibit drastic sexual dimorphism. Unlike many other birds of prey, male Andean condors are considerably larger than the females. Also, males have a large caruncle (comb) and wattle which females lack. Sexes differ in eye color as well, with males having brown irises and females having red. Both sexes have the ability to change the color of the bare skin on their neck and face in association with mood. This is used for communication between individuals and males also use this for displays during mating season.
The feet of Andean condors are much less powerful with shorter blunted talons compared to those of other birds of prey. This adaption is well suited for a lifestyle of walking and scavenging. The hind toe is less developed, but the middle toe is much longer that the other toes. Their feet and legs are covered in circular scales that are dark grey in color.
Range mass: 7.7 to 15 kg.
Average mass: 10.8 kg.
Range length: 97.5 to 128 cm.
Average wingspan: 3.2 m.
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry
Sexual Dimorphism: male larger; sexes colored or patterned differently; ornamentation
- Lambertucci, S., O. Mastrantuoni. 2008. Breeding behavior of a pair of free-living Andean Condors. Journal of Field Ornithology, 79/2: 147-151.
Chilean Mattoral Habitat
This taxon can be found in the Chilean matorral, an ecoregion in western central Chile that covers an area of approximately 57,300 square miles. This ecoregion is classified within the Mediterranean forests, woodlands, and scrub biome. Exhibiting high plant and vertebrate endemism, the entire ecoregion is classified as critically endangered due to intensive deforestation and persistent high air pollution due to pressures of a burgeoning human population. Reptilian endemism is particularly notable, especially with respect to the tree iguanas; moreover, there are numerous reptiles, birds and mammals of threatened conservation status that can be found in the Chilean matorral.
he ecoregion also boasts a very high level of flora endemism; moreover, it is considered as a critically endangered habitat, with ongoing assaults from deforestation by native peoples of the region, resulting in severe habitat loss and habitat fragmentation. The deforestation has not only reduced habitat, but has accelerated the establishment of large expanses of alien herbs that were brought in during the Spanish settlement period; however, about 95% of the plant species are Chilean endemic, including Gomortega keule, Pitavia punctata, Nothofagus alessandrii and Jubaea chilensis.
Non-endemic threatened birds of the Chilean matorral are the Green-backed Firecrown (Sephanoides sephanoides), the Threatened Inca tern (Larosterna inca), the Near threatened Chilean flamingo (Phoenicopteris chilensis), the Near Threatened Peruvian pelican (Pelecanus thagus), the Endangered Peruvian diving-petrel (Pelecanoides garnotii), the Near Threatened elegant tern (Sterna elegans), the Near Threatened guanay cormorant (Phalacrocorax bougainvillii), the Near Threatened Inca tern (Larosterna inca), the Near threatened Chilean flamingo (Phoenicopteris chilensis), the strictly marine Vulnerable Humboldt penguin (Spheniscus humboldti), the Near Threatened red-legged cormorant (Phalacrocorax gaimardi)
Andean condors inhabit mountain and coastal mountain habitat types in the Andean mountains of South America. They have been located at elevations of up to 5,500 m. They prefer areas with wide open spaces which aid in their detection of food. Andean condors roost and nest on cliff faces in small rock ledges or caves. They use the thermals that rise and spiral off of these cliff faces to soar for hours with very little effort, scanning for carrion.
Range elevation: 0 to 5,500 m.
Habitat Regions: temperate ; tropical ; terrestrial
Terrestrial Biomes: desert or dune ; savanna or grassland ; mountains
Aquatic Biomes: coastal
Other Habitat Features: caves
- Lambertucci, S., A. Trejo, S. Di Martino, J. Sanchez-Zapata, J. Donazar, F. Hiraldo. 2009. Spatial and temporal patterns in the diet of the Andean condor: ecological replacement of native fauna by exotic species. Animal Conservation, 12: 338-345.
Habitat and Ecology
Andean condors may form mutualistic relationships with smaller turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) and black vultures (Coragyps atratus), which forage by smell whereas Andean condors forages by sight. Larger Andean condors are much better adapted at tearing into the tough hide of a fresh kill. The smaller vultures benefit from the labors of the condor and feed on what is left of the newly opened carcass. Within the last century or so there has been an ecological shift in food availability across much of the Andean condors' range as native megafauna species (Llamas, alpacas, rheas, guanacos, and armadillos) are widely being displaced by domesticated animals (cows, horses, sheep, and goats) as well as those introduced for sport hunting (rabbits, foxes, wild boars, and red deer). Andean condors also eat carcasses of whales and other large marine mammals in coastal regions.
Andean condors are primarily scavengers but have been observed to do some hunting of marmots, birds and rabbits. Andean condors lack well developed hunting techniques but may chase and grab at live prey, in which case they begin feeding before the animal is dead. Andean condors hold prey by standing on it, as they lack the strong grasping feet found in most hunting raptors.
When approaching a fresh carcass, Andean condors often start opening the animal near the anus and progress toward the head. One of the first things eaten is usually the liver, followed by the muscle. No significant attempt to open the skulls and eat the brain has been observed.
In the northern reaches of their range, where Andean condors are in sharp population decline, food availability is a problem. One study suggested that this lack of food may increase the condors tendency to forage on road kill which presents a threat of being hit by a passing car.
Animal Foods: birds; mammals; carrion
Primary Diet: carnivore (Scavenger )
- Speziale, K., S. Lambertucci, O. Olssonb. 2008. Disturbance from roads negatively affects Andean condor habitat use. Biological Conservation, 141: 1765-1772. Accessed January 18, 2010 at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=MImg&_imagekey=B6V5X-4SR0819-1-F&_cdi=5798&_user=972151&_orig=search&_coverDate=07%2F31%2F2008&_sk=998589992&view=c&wchp=dGLbVlW-zSkWz&md5=844277a4f2cdebb4d0bb9c1e811134d7&ie=/sdarticle.pdf.
Andean condors are some of the largest and most successful avian scavengers on the planet and they serve an important role in the consumption of carrion to help prevent the spread of disease in an ecosystem.
Smaller vultures may have a mutualistic relationship with large Andean condors where the smaller birds locate carrion and provide passive visual cues to the high soaring Andean condors that food is nearby. The larger, more powerful condors usually arrive last to the group and opens up the carcass. This provides the smaller vultures with access to areas that were too tough to exploit on their own. The arrival of Andean condors was observed to cause visible "excitement" among the smaller vultures. Condors' activity of opening up a carcass has been observed to start a "feeding frenzy" among smaller scavengers, in which all normal dominance hierarchies are temporarily ignored.
Ecosystem Impact: biodegradation
- Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura)
- Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus)
Healthy adult condors have no known natural predators. Young chicks may fall victim to large birds of prey or to foxes if the nest is accessible to flightless predators. Eggs may also be lost to predation.
Andean condors nest on high, inaccessible cliff ledges where available but sometimes nest in areas that are more accessible by land. They are known to aggressively display and actively defend the nest site from potential predators, including zoo keepers.
- Foxes (Vulpes)
- Birds of Prey
Life History and Behavior
Andean condors rely on their sense of sight to detect and locate carrion from thousands of feet in the air. They also may use visual cues from smaller vultures, which use smell to locate food.
Both sexes have the ability to change the color of the bare skin on their neck and face in association with mood. This is used for communication between individuals and males also use this for displays during mating season. Males use face and neck flushing (yellow) as part of their visual courtship displays. Andean condors also use clicking and hissing for communication but they lack a syrinx which is needed to produce more complicated bird calls.
Like all birds, Andean condors perceive their environments through visual, auditory, tactile and chemical stimuli.
Communication Channels: visual ; acoustic
Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical
Andean condors are long lived birds that mature slowly. Their true maximum lifespan in the wild is unknown but is estimated at around 50 years.
In January of 2010 a wild-born, captive condor died at nearly 80 years old at the Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport Connecticut.
Status: captivity: 80 (high) years.
Status: wild: 50 (high) years.
Status: captivity: 75 (high) years.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
A pair of Andean condors may select a nest site and then roost in (or near) it for as much as two and a half months before mating actually begins. As the pair mate and the time draws near to the female laying their egg, they will gradually begin to roost closer and closer to the nest ledge until they are finally roosting overnight inside it.
The mating behavior of Andean condors differs between accounts in zoo settings and the limited observations of wild birds. Accounts of wild birds have been made at great distances without clear views or description of the display or copulatory behavior. The male display can begin with pre-display behavior that includes the male rubbing his head and neck against a tree or post. Also the male has been described to present the female with small twigs and straws that they both lodge in their wing feathers, immediately followed by the object falling to the ground. These behaviors were not observed in all cases, and no definite explanation was offered. It is loosely hypothesized that the stick behavior may be remnant of when the species ancestors were nest builders but no formal studies have been conducted.
In general the male begins to display by spreading his wings and inflating his neck. His neck and wattle, which are normally a dull pinkish-grey color, flush a bright sulfur yellow. He approaches the female with his wings spread and his neck outstretched and arched with his bill pointing down. The male makes small turns to the left and right as he waddles toward the female who also may spread her wings and mimic his movements. The male hisses as he approaches the female, who may reply with low moaning sounds during copulation. The pair may nibble at each other for several minutes and click their bills together. Nibbling can continue during and after copulation.
Courtship and mating seem to be intricately tied to the males role as a dominant partner and the females submissiveness to him, which may account for the variation in observed behaviors from pair to pair, if each pair has a different balance of dominance in the relationship.
Mating System: monogamous
The mating season of Andean condors varies geographically, but is generally from February through June. They are non-migratory so seasonal extremes are very different in the northern and southern extents of their range. Breeding interval is also likely variable depending on the quality of their habitat and the availability of food.
Observations of breeding in Andean condors have been documented in great detail in only a few instances. This makes generalizing their behavior difficult due to variation between observations.
Most Andean condors do not construct a nest and will lay a single egg on the bare, cliff ledge. Some condors will collect a few sticks to scatter around the ledge. Eggs are bluish-white in color, weigh about 280 g, and are 7.6 to 10.1 cm in length. The single egg is incubated for 54 to 58 days, after which an altricial, downy chick hatches. Chicks are tended by both parents until they fledge at 6 to 7 months old. Fledglings remain with their parents until 2 years old, or when pairs breed again. Juveniles do not reach sexual maturity until 6 to 11 years of age.
Breeding interval: Andean condors breed every 2 to 3 years and may be more frequent if food resources are high.
Breeding season: Breeding season is between February and June in Peru, and between October and
Average eggs per season: 1.
Range time to hatching: 2 to 3 months.
Range fledging age: 6 to 7 months.
Range time to independence: 2 to 3 years.
Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 6 to 11 years.
Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 6 to 11 years.
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; oviparous
Both sexes participate in incubation of the eggs and feeding the young. The sexes alternate incubation, with one of the pair always at the nest for the first 1 to 2 months. The parents continue alternating time at the nest for an additional month but gradually spent more time off the nest, but near the nest site. Males may forcibly displace females from the egg to take over incubation. Males have also been observed frequently chasing the females out of the nest before and after hatching. Males also feed the young more often than the females do. Parents tend the young well after they fledge at 6 to 7 months of age. Juveniles remain with the parents for an average of 2 years, or until parents breed again.
Parental Investment: altricial ; male parental care ; female parental care ; pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Female); pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Male, Female, Protecting: Male, Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Male, Female, Protecting: Male, Female); pre-independence (Provisioning: Male, Female, Protecting: Male, Female); post-independence association with parents; extended period of juvenile learning
- Gailey, J., N. Bolwig. 1973. Observations on the Behavior of the Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus). The Condor, 75/1: 60-68. Accessed January 11, 2010 at http://www.jstor.org/stable/1366535.
- Lambertucci, S., O. Mastrantuoni. 2008. Breeding behavior of a pair of free-living Andean Condors. Journal of Field Ornithology, 79/2: 147-151.
- Whitston, M., P. Whitston. 1969. Breeding Behavior of the Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus). The Condor, 71/1: 73-75. Accessed January 11, 2010 at http://www.jstor.org/stable/1366056.
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Vultur gryphus
Public Records: 0
Specimens with Barcodes: 7
Species With Barcodes: 1
Andean condors are listed as 'Near Threatened' on the IUCN Red List as they have faced significant population declines in recent years. Threats to Andean condors include habitat loss, lead ammunition ingestion, and persecution by farmers. Even after captive breeding and reintroduction programs, the slow reproduction rate (once every 2 to 3 years) of these birds is slowing population recovery.
Past conservation concerns had to do with the use of lead ammunition for hunting, because condors' digestive systems are harsh enough to absorb large quantities of the lead if ingested from scavenged gunshot kills. There has been much effort to end the use of lead ammunition within the range of Andean condors, but concern still exists.
The ecological replacement of many of Andean condors' native food sources by domestic animals may have unforeseen long term effects on their survival.
CITES: appendix i
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: near threatened
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
Date Listed: 12/02/1970
Lead Region: Foreign (Region 10)
Where Listed: Entire
Population location: Entire
Listing status: E
For most current information and documents related to the conservation status and management of Vultur gryphus , see its USFWS Species Profile
CITES Appendix I. CMS Appendix II.
Conservation Actions Proposed
Census population based on use of photography/video to recognise individual birds at feeding stations (Ríos-Uzeda and Wallace 2007). Study extent to which species makes large-scale movements. Study potential impact on livestock and begin dialogue with farmers with the aim of reducing persecution.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Andean condors tend to feed on large dead animals and occasionally will hunt sick and injured megafauna. Much of the local megafauna in the Andean highlands has been ecologically replaced by domesticated range species such as lamas, cows, horses, sheep, and goats which now constitute a large part of condors' diets. This has led some farmers and ranchers to see them as pest species that harass their livestock. Poisoning was not uncommon over the last hundred years but is now becoming less common due to an increase in public awareness and appreciation of Andean condors as symbols of the region.
Negative Impacts: crop pest
Andean condors have been extremely important as a cultural symbol in the Andes mountains of south America for thousands of years. In the ancient Inca culture of Peru the condor represents one of the three realms of existence, the heavens; while the Jaguar represents the earth and the snake the underworld. These three cultural references appear all over Inca society, including in their architecture. The site of Machu Picchu, which was a royal vacation home, is built in the shape of a condor if viewed from the top of a nearby mountain. There is also a massive stone altar in the site that is shaped like a huge condor with wings spread high.
Andean condors also serve essential roles for humans as important carrion feeders that help limit the spread of disease.
Andean condors are one of the world’s largest flying birds and thus their survival in the native habitat is important for ecotourism in South America. Andean condors are also often found in zoos, being a popular animal to exhibit due to their status. They were also an important learning resource for zookeepers to gain experience with the challenges of captive breeding large condors that was essential to the conservation of critically endangered California condors.
Positive Impacts: research and education
- Brown, J., N. Mitchell. 2000. Culture and Nature in the Protection of Andean Landscapes. Mountain Research and Development, 20/3: 212-217. Accessed January 11, 2010 at http://www.jstor.org/stable/3674268.
- Wallace, M., S. Temple. 1987. Releasing Captive-Reared Andean Condors to the Wild. The Journal of Wildlife Management, 51/3: 541-550. Accessed January 18, 2010 at http://www.jstor.org/stable/3801266.
The Andean condor (Vultur gryphus) is a South American bird in the New World vulture family Cathartidae and is the only member of the genus Vultur. Found in the Andes mountains and adjacent Pacific coasts of western South America, the Andean condor has a wingspan of up to 3.2 m/10.5 ft  but is exceeded by the wandering albatross (at up to 3.6 m/12 ft), the southern royal albatross, the Dalmatian and the great white pelicans (at reportedly up to 3.5 m/11.6 ft).
It is a large black vulture with a ruff of white feathers surrounding the base of the neck and, especially in the male, large white patches on the wings. The head and neck are nearly featherless, and are a dull red color, which may flush and therefore change color in response to the bird's emotional state. In the male, there is a wattle on the neck and a large, dark red comb or caruncle on the crown of the head. Unlike most birds of prey, the male is larger than the female.
The condor is primarily a scavenger, feeding on carrion. It prefers large carcasses, such as those of deer or cattle. It reaches sexual maturity at five or six years of age and nests at elevations of up to 5,000 m (16,000 ft), generally on inaccessible rock ledges. One or two eggs are usually laid. It is one of the world's longest-living birds, with a lifespan of over 70 years in some cases.
The Andean condor is a national symbol of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru and plays an important role in the folklore and mythology of the Andean regions. The Andean condor is considered near threatened by the IUCN. It is threatened by habitat loss and by secondary poisoning from carcasses killed by hunters. Captive breeding programs have been instituted in several countries.
Taxonomy and systematics
The Andean condor was described by Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus in 1758 in the tenth edition of his Systema Naturae and retains its original binomial name of Vultur gryphus. The Andean condor is sometimes called the Argentinean condor, Bolivian condor, Chilean condor, Colombian condor, Ecuadorian condor, or Peruvian condor after one of the nations to which it is native. The generic term Vultur is directly taken from the Latin vultur or voltur, which means "vulture". Its specific epithet is derived from a variant of the Greek word γρυπός (grupós, "hook-nosed"). The word condor itself is derived from the Quechua kuntur.
The exact taxonomic placement of the Andean condor and the remaining six species of New World vultures remains unclear. Though both are similar in appearance and have similar ecological roles, the New World and Old World vultures evolved from different ancestors in different parts of the world and are not closely related. Just how different the two families are is currently under debate, with some earlier authorities suggesting that the New World vultures are more closely related to storks. More recent authorities maintain their overall position in the order Falconiformes along with the Old World vultures or place them in their own order, Cathartiformes. The South American Classification Committee has removed the New World vultures from Ciconiiformes and instead described them as incertae sedis, but notes that a move to Falconiformes or Cathartiformes is possible.
The Andean condor is the only accepted living species of its genus, Vultur. Unlike the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus), which is known from extensive fossil remains and some additional ones of congeners, the fossil record of the Andean condor recovered to date is scant. Presumed Plio-Pleistocene species of South American condors were later recognized to be not different from the present species, although one known only from a few rather small bones found in a Pliocene deposit of Tarija Department, Bolivia, may have been a smaller palaeosubspecies, V. gryphus patruus.
Although it is on average about seven to eight cm shorter from beak to tail than the California condor, the Andean condor is larger in wingspan, which ranges from 270 to 320 cm (8 ft 10 in to 10 ft 6 in). It is also typically heavier, reaching a weight of 11 to 15 kg (24 to 33 lb) for males and 8 to 11 kg (18 to 24 lb) for females. Overall length can range from 100 to 130 cm (3 ft 3 in to 4 ft 3 in). Among standard measurements, the wing chord is 75.7–85.2 cm (29.8–33.5 in), the tail is 33–38 cm (13–15 in) and the tarsus is 11.5–12.5 cm (4.5–4.9 in). Measurements are usually taken from specimens reared in captivity. The mean weight is 11.3 kg (25 lb), with the males averaging about a kilogram more at 12.5 kg (28 lb), the females a kilogram less at 10.1 kg (22 lb). According to a recently published manual of avian body masses, the species possesses the heaviest average weight for any living flying bird or animal, ahead of competitors such as trumpeter swans (Cygnus buccinator) and Dalmatian pelicans (Pelecanus crispus). However, another resources claims a mean species body mass of 10.3 kg (23 lb) for the Andean condor. The Andean condor is the largest living land bird capable of flight if measured in terms of average weight and wingspan, although male bustards of the largest species (far more sexually dimorphic in size) can weigh more at maximum. The mean wingspan is around 283 cm (9 ft 3 in) and the wings have the largest surface area (measured in square centimeters) of any extant bird. Among living bird species, only the great albatrosses and the two largest species of pelican exceed the Andean condor in average and maximal wingspan.
The adult plumage is a uniform black, with the exception of a frill of white feathers nearly surrounding the base of the neck and, especially in the male, large patches or bands of white on the wings which do not appear until the completion of the bird's first moulting. The head and neck are red to blackish-red and have few feathers. The head and neck are meticulously kept clean by the bird, and their baldness is an adaptation for hygiene, allowing the skin to be exposed to the sterilizing effects of dehydration and ultraviolet light at high altitudes. The crown of the head is flattened. In the male, the head is crowned with a dark red caruncle or comb, while the skin of his neck lies in folds, forming a wattle. The skin of the head and neck is capable of flushing noticeably in response to emotional state, which serves to communicate between individuals. Juveniles have a grayish-brown general coloration, blackish head and neck skin, and a brown ruff. 
The middle toe is greatly elongated, and the hind one is only slightly developed, while the talons of all the toes are comparatively straight and blunt. The feet are thus more adapted to walking, and are of little use as weapons or organs of prehension as in birds of prey and Old World vultures. The beak is hooked, and adapted to tear rotting meat. The irises of the male are brown, while those of the female are deep red. The eyelids lack eyelashes. Contrary to the usual rule for sexual dimorphism among birds of prey, the female is smaller than the male.
Distribution and habitat
The Andean condor is found in South America in the Andes, including the Santa Marta Mountains. In the north, its range begins in Venezuela and Colombia, where it is extremely rare, then continues south along the Andes in Ecuador, Peru, and Chile, through Bolivia and western Argentina to the Tierra del Fuego. In the early 19th century, the Andean condor bred from western Venezuela to Tierra del Fuego, along the entire chain of the Andes, but its range has been greatly reduced due to human activity. Its habitat is mainly composed of open grasslands and alpine areas up to 5,000 m (16,000 ft) in elevation. It prefers relatively open, non-forested areas which allow it to spot carrion from the air, such as the páramo or rocky, mountainous areas in general. It occasionally ranges to lowlands in eastern Bolivia and southwestern Brazil, descends to lowland desert areas in Chile and Peru, and is found over southern-beech forests in Patagonia.
Ecology and behavior
The condor soars with its wings held horizontally and its primary feathers bent upwards at the tips. The lack of a large sternum to anchor its correspondingly large flight muscles physiologically identifies it as primarily being a soarer. It flaps its wings on rising from the ground, but after attaining a moderate elevation it flaps its wings very rarely, relying on thermals to stay aloft. Charles Darwin commented on having watched them for half an hour without once observing a flap of their wings. It prefers to roost on high places from which it can launch without major wing-flapping effort. Andean condors are often seen soaring near rock cliffs, using the heat thermals to aid them in rising in the air.
Like other New World vultures, the Andean condor has the unusual habit of urohidrosis: it often empties its cloaca onto its legs and feet. A cooling effect through evaporation has been proposed as a reason for this behaviour, but it makes no sense in the cold Andean habitat of the bird. Because of this habit, their legs are often streaked with a white buildup of uric acid.
There is a well-developed social structure within large groups of condors, with competition to determine a 'pecking order' by body language, competitive play behavior, and vocalizations. Generally, mature males tend to be at the top of the pecking order, with post-dispersal immature males tending to be near the bottom.
The Andean condor is a scavenger, feeding mainly on carrion. Wild condors inhabit large territories, often traveling more than 200 km (120 mi) a day in search of carrion. In inland areas, they prefer large carcasses. Naturally, they feed on the largest carcasses available, which can include llamas (Lama glama), alpacas (Vicugna pacos), rheas (Rhea ssp.), guanacos (Lama guanicoe), deer and armadillos. However, most inland condors now live largely off of domestic animals, which are now more widespread in South America, such as cattle (Bos primigenius taurus), horses (Equus ferus caballus), donkeys (Equus africanus asinus), mules, sheep (Ovis aries), pigs (Sus scrofa domesticus), goats (Capra aegagrus hircus) and dogs (Canis lupus familiaris). They also feed on the carcasses of introduced game species such as wild boars (Sus scrofa), rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus), foxes (Vulpes vulpes) and red deer (Cervus elaphus). For condors who live around the coast, the diet consists mainly of beached carcasses of marine mammals, largely cetaceans. They will also raid the nests of smaller birds to feed on the eggs. Andean condors have been observed to do some hunting of small, live animals, such as rodents, birds and rabbits, which (given their lack of powerful, grasping feet or developed hunting technique) they usually kill by jabbing repeatedly with their bill. Coastal areas provide a constant food supply, and in particularly plentiful areas, some Andean condors limit their foraging area to several kilometers of beach-front land. They locate carrion by spotting it or by following other scavengers, such as corvids or other vultures. It may follow New World vultures of the genus Cathartes—the turkey vulture (C. aura), the lesser yellow-headed vulture (C. burrovianus), and the greater yellow-headed vulture (C. melambrotus)—to carcasses. The Cathartes vultures forage by smell, detecting the scent of ethyl mercaptan, a gas produced by the beginnings of decay in dead animals. These smaller vultures cannot rip through the tougher hides of these larger animals with the efficiency of the larger condor, and their interactions are often an example of mutual dependence between species. Black vultures (Coragyps atratus), king vultures (Sarcoramphus papa) and even mammalian scavengers may sometimes track Cathartes vultures for carcasses but the condor is invariably dominant among the scavengers in its range. Andean condors are intermittent eaters in the wild, often going for a few days without eating, then gorging themselves on several pounds at once, sometimes to the point of being unable to lift off the ground. Because its feet and talons are not adapted to grasping, it must feed while on the ground. Like other carrion-feeders, it plays an important role in its ecosystem by disposing of carrion which would otherwise be a breeding ground for disease.
Sexual maturity and breeding behavior do not appear in the Andean condor until the bird is five or six years of age. It may live to be 50 plus, and it mates for life. During courtship displays, the skin of the male's neck flushes, changing from dull red to bright yellow, and inflates. He approaches the female with neck outstretched, revealing the inflated neck and the chest patch, while hissing, then extends his wings and stands erect while clicking his tongue. Other courtship rituals include hissing and clucking while hopping with wings partially spread, and dancing. The Andean condor prefers to roost and breed at elevations of 3,000 to 5,000 m (9,800 to 16,400 ft). Its nest, which consists of a few sticks placed around the eggs, is created on inaccessible ledges of rock. However, in coastal areas of Peru, where there are few cliffs, some nests are simply partially shaded crannies scraped out against boulders on slopes. It deposits one or two bluish-white eggs, weighing about 280 g (9.9 oz) and ranging from 75 to 100 mm (3.0 to 3.9 in) in length, during the months of February and March every second year. The egg hatches after 54 to 58 days of incubation by both parents. If the chick or egg is lost or removed, another egg is laid to take its place. Researchers and breeders take advantage of this behavior to double the reproductive rate by taking the first egg away for hand-rearing, causing the parents to lay a second egg, which they are generally allowed to raise.
The young are covered with a grayish down until they are almost as large as their parents. They are able to fly after six months, but continue to roost and hunt with their parents until age two, when they are displaced by a new clutch. Healthy adults have no natural predators, but large birds of prey and mammalian predators, like foxes, may take eggs or hatchlings. Predation is relatively uncommon, since the vigilant parents often aggressively displace birds of prey who come near and the rocky, precipitous location of most nests are difficult for mammals to access.
Being a slowly-maturing bird with no known natural predators in adulthood, an Andean condor is quite a long-lived bird. Longevity and mortality rates are not known to have been extensively studied in the wild. Some estimations of lifespans of wild birds has exceeded 50 years. In 1983, the Guinness Book of World Records considered the longest-lived bird of any species with a confirmed lifespan was an Andean condor that died after surviving 72 years in captivity, having been captured from the wild as a juvenile of undetermined age. Several species of parrot have been reported to live for perhaps over 100 years, but these (at least in 1983) were not considered authenticated. Another early captive-held specimen of condor reportedly lived for 71 years. However, these lifespans have been exceeded by a male, nicknamed "Thaao", that was kept Beardsley Zoo in Connecticut. Thaao was born in captivity in 1930 and died on January 26, 2010, making him 79 years of age. This would be the greatest verified age ever known for a bird.
Relationship with humans
The Andean condor is considered near threatened by the IUCN. It was first placed on the United States Endangered Species list in 1970, a status which is assigned to an animal that is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. Threats to its population include loss of habitat needed for foraging, secondary poisoning from animals killed by hunters and persecution. It is threatened mainly in the northern area of its range, and is extremely rare in Venezuela and Colombia, where it has undergone considerable declines in recent years. Because it is adapted to very low mortality and has correspondingly low reproductive rates, it is extremely vulnerable to human persecution, most of which stems from the fact that it is perceived as a threat by farmers due to alleged attacks on livestock. Education programs have been implemented by conservationists to dispel this misconception. Reintroduction programs using captive-bred Andean condors, which release birds hatched in North American zoos into the wild to bolster populations, have been introduced in Argentina, Venezuela, and Colombia. The first captive-bred Andean condors were released into the wild in 1989. When raising condors, human contact is minimal; chicks are fed with glove puppets which resemble adult Andean condors in order to prevent the chicks from imprinting on humans, which would endanger them upon release as they would not be wary of humans. The condors are kept in aviaries for three months prior to release, where they acclimatize to an environment similar to that which they will be released in. Released condors are tracked by satellite in order to observe their movements and to monitor whether they are still alive.
In response to the capture of all the wild individuals of the California condor, in 1988 the US Fish and Wildlife Service began a reintroduction experiment involving the release of captive Andean condors into the wild in California. Only females were released to eliminate the possibility of accidentally introducing a South American species into the United States. The experiment was a success, and all the Andean condors were recaptured and re-released in South America before the reintroduction of the California condors took place.
Role in culture
The Andean condor is a national symbol of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. It is the national bird of Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador. It plays an important role in the folklore and mythology of the South American Andean regions, and has been represented in Andean art from c. 2500 BCE onward, and they are a part of indigenous Andean religions. In Andean mythology, the Andean condor was associated with the sun deity, and was believed to be the ruler of the upper world. The Andean condor is considered a symbol of power and health by many Andean cultures, and it was believed that the bones and organs of the Andean condor possessed medicinal powers, sometimes leading to the hunting and killing of condors to obtain its bones and organs. In some versions of Peruvian bullfighting, a condor is tied to the back of a bull, where it pecks at the animal as bullfighters fight it. The condor generally survives and is set free.
In Peru, they are occasionally shot, but more often revered and used for ceremonial purposes. The Yawar Fiesta is a celebration, the pinnacle of which is the tying of an Andean condor to the back of a bull, allowing the condor to kill the bull with its talons before being released. This ceremony is a symbolic representation of the power of the Andean peoples (the condor) over the Spanish (the bull). There is also a ceremony known as the arranque del condor in which a live Andean condor is suspended from a frame and is punched to death by horsemen as they ride by.
The Andean condor is a popular figure on stamps in many countries, appearing on one for Ecuador in 1958, Argentina in 1960, Peru in 1973, Bolivia in 1985, Colombia in 1992, Chile in 2001, and Venezuela in 2004. It has also appeared on the coins and banknotes of Colombia and Chile. The condor is featured in several coats of arms of Andean countries as a symbol of Andes mountains.
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