South America's National Animals

The Andean Condor

The Andean condor is the state bird of Bolivia, Chile, Colombia and Ecuador and a national emblem of Argentina and Peru. It is also a monotypic species. Like the bison, black rhino, okapi and numbat, it is the only species in its genus. Its taxonomic name is Vultur gryphus. It belongs to the New World vulture family Cathartidae.

Distribution Map(82041)Credit: Wikimedia

The Andean condor is found in the Andes mountains (including the Santa Maria Mountains) and nearby Pacific coasts on the west of South America. Its range begins in Venezuela and Colombia, (although it is rare there) and continues south to Tierra del Fuego.

It is mainly found in alpine areas up to 5,000 metres and in relatively open, non-forested areas where it has a better view of open grasslands where carrion might be found.

The vulture is large and black. It is unusual among birds of prey in that the male is larger than the female. Although it is slightly shorter beak to tail length than the California Condor, it has a greater wingspan (from 8.9 to 10.5 feet). It is also heavier with males weighing 24 to 33 pounds and females a little less.

Andean CondorCredit: Wikimedia

There is a ruff of white feathers which almost meets around the base of the neck and large white patches on the wings although these may be missing in the females. The patches appear only after the first moult.

There are very few feathers on the head and neck which can 'flush' and redden in response to the emotional state of the bird at any given time. The male has folds of skin on the neck forming a wattle and a large, dark red caruncle (comb) on the crown of the head.

The bare head and neck are kept very clean to minimise infections from continually feeding on carrion. The hooked beak is suited to tearing meat from carcases. The male has brown irises and the female deep red. There are no eyelashes. The middle toes is elongated and the talons are straight and blunt. The foot as a whole is more suited to locomotion than for defence or holding food.

The condor is one of the world's longest living birds. In captivity, the birds have lived for up to 100 years.

Andean Condor FlyingCredit: Wikimedia

The condor flies with the wings held straight out and the primary feathers bent up at the tip. Once it gets aloft, it relies on thermals to keep it in the air. They find it difficult to lift their bulk into the air and endeavour to roost in high places where they can launch themselves without a lot of flapping.

The Andean condor defecates on its legs and feet so the legs are often streaked with a white build-up of uric acid. This also helps kill any bacterial which may be present on the putrid carcasses on which the condor feeds. Condors may follow other scavengers to a kill. Smaller scavengers sometimes cannot gain access through a tough hide so there is some degree of mutual dependence between species as the smaller prey birds wait for the services of the Andean condor.

Condors have a social structure with body language, competitive play behaviour and vocalisations all playing a part in determining the 'pecking order' of the birds.

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The vulture feeds mostly on carrion and is particularly fond of large carcases such as deer or cattle. Condors may travel 200 km a day searching for carrion. On the beaches they will feed on carcases of beached marine mammals. They also raid nests for bird eggs. Condors will gorge themselves to the point of being unable to take off. They have to eat on the ground because of the shape of their talons which preclude it from carrying off food.

Scavengers play an important role in disposing of carrion, cleaning up rotting flesh and minimising the spread of disease..

Courtship causes the skin on the male's neck to change from dull red to bright yellow. The skin also inflates and the male approaches the female. He will display his neck and chest patch with wings outstretched and hiss and click his tongue. He will also hop with the wings partially spread and will 'dance' for the female.

The Andean condor builds its nests on inaccessible rock ledges at altitudes of up to 5,000 metres above sea level. The nest is just a few sticks placed around the eggs. A clutch of one or two bluish-white eggs are laid. The eggs are 3 to 4 inches long and incubation takes 54 to 58 days. Both parents share incubation and parenting duties. If an egg disappears, another is laid.

By taking advantage of this habit, conservationists have been able to double the rate of reproduction by removing one egg for hand-raising and allowing the pair to bring up a second chick. The chicks are covered with grey down until almost full size. They fly at six months but stay with the parents until a new clutch of eggs is laid. Sexual maturity is attained at 5 or 6 years of age. The condor mates for life.

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Habitat loss and secondary poisoning are great threats to the Andean condor. It has no natural enemies but birds of prey and foxes will take young condors if given the opportunity. Farmers and ranchers see the condor as a threat due to alleged attacks on livestock. In its wild environment, the condor has a low mortality rate so has a low reproductive rate. This makes it very susceptible to human persecution.

Hand-raised condors have been released into the wild in some areas in an effort to restock parts of its range. Hand-raised chicks are fed with handlers using glove puppets made to resemble adult birds. Human contact is kept to a minimal so that the young birds do not become used to contact with humans. This gives the birds a better chance of survival when they are released. Before being released, the condors spend three months in an aviary in a similar environment to that into which they'll be released. They are then tracked by satellite both to monitor their movements and to check if they are still alive.

The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) has classified the Andean condor as 'near threatened'. Several countries have established captive breeding programs for these birds.