Class: Aves (Birds)
Body length: 3.2 to 4.2 feet (99 to 130 centimeters)
Wingspan: Up to 10.5 feet (3.2 meters)
Weight: Adult male—24 to 33 pounds (11 to 15 kilograms); adult female—17 to 24 pounds (7.7 to 11 kilograms)
Life span: 50 to 60 years in the wild, up to 70 years in zoos
Incubation: 56 to 62 days
Number of eggs laid: 1 every other year, but a second egg may be laid 4 to 6 weeks later if the first egg is lost.
Age of maturity: usually 5 to 8 years, but can be delayed if the food supply is poor.
Conservation status: vulnerable
The Andean condor is one of nature’s recyclers: they eat leftovers! After a condor eats, it will rub its head and neck back and forth across the ground to get all the “crumbs” off.
• High flyers, Andean condors soar to heights of 18,000 feet (5,500 meters), or almost 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers)!
• An Andean condor can eat more than 15 pounds (6.8 kilograms) of flesh at one time and may not be able to fly after such a big meal.
• Andean condors do not have a syrinx (similar to our larynx), so they cannot vocalize. Instead, they will hiss, click, and grunt to communicate.
• The Andean condor is the national symbol of Colombia and appears on the country's coins and currency. In Ecuador and Chile, condor means "gold coin."
• Working with Andean condors helped San Diego Zoo Globalstaff prepare to save the critically endangered California condor.
Birds: Andean Condor
Range: Andes Mountains in South America, from Venezuela to Tierra del Fuego, descending to sea level in Peru and Chile.
Old birds from the New World
The largest raptor in the world and the largest flying bird in South America, the Andean condor flies majestically over the mountains and valleys of the Andes in South America. This bird of prey and its close cousin, the California condor, are part of the New World vultures, a family more closely related to storks than to the vultures of Africa.
A meal to die for
Like all vultures, Andean condors are scavengers and find most of their food after it is already dead. This lifestyle isn’t for everyone, but it does have certain advantages (the food can’t fight back!), and condors have many adaptations that help them. Like most other vultures, condors have featherless heads, to keep from getting too messy while buried in a carcass, and a high resistance to harmful bacteria. Their curved beak is good for tearing rotting flesh. But as strong and impressive as an Andean condor’s beak looks, it is not as strong as the beaks of other birds of prey. Andean condors have also been known to eat shorebirds and their eggs.
The sky's the limit
To find their food, Andean condors use their excellent eyesight and can spot a meal from high up in the air. They also look for clues to their next meal, such as other raptors gathering in one area on the ground or circling in the sky. Condors can glide over large areas while using very little energy. These huge birds are too heavy to fly without help, so they use warm air currents (thermals) to help them gain altitude and soar through the sky. By gliding from thermal to thermal, a condor may need to flap its wings only about once every hour. When a condor stretches out its wings, the wing feathers look like outstretched fingertips. These “fingertips” let the condor make fine adjustments in flight, like wing flaps on an airplane.
In the eye of the beholder
Andean condors are the only New World vultures to show sexual dimorphism. Males are usually larger and have a distinctive comb on top of their head, as well as a large neck wattle and yellow eyes. The females lack the comb and have red eyes. The males keep the comb all their life, which makes it easy to tell the sex of an Andean condor chick as soon as it hatches. As adults, both sexes have black plumage with white secondary feathers and white neck ruffles. Juveniles have brown plumage and skin and don’t develop adult coloring until they are about six years old.
The male Andean condor uses quite a display to attract his mate. He will spread his wings, click his tongue, hiss, and his neck will turn yellow. If the female is impressed, the two will find an appropriate nest, usually in a shallow cave on a cliff ledge. The female will lay a single egg, which both parents will take turns incubating. Once the chick hatches, both parents are responsible for its care for over a year, well after the chick has fledged at six months. The young condor spends this time learning how to be a condor from its parents, everything from how to catch a thermal to what to eat and how to find it.
Andean condors are threatened over most of their range because they are both revered and feared by local people. The condor is seen as a symbol of power, health, and liberty, and its bones and organs are used in traditional medicines. It is believed that the bird's stomach cures breast cancer; that roasted condor eyes will improve eyesight; and that a condor feather under the bed will ward off nightmares. Condors also appear in many South American myths. The Incas thought that the condor brought the sun into the sky every morning and was a messenger to the gods. There are also misconceptions about the condors’ role in the food chain, so condors are shot or poisoned to “protect” livestock. Condors also face threats from loss of habitat and reduced food sources.
The good news is that Andean condors breed well in managed care, and there are continuing successful efforts to restore the condor population in the wild. Michael Mace, curator for birds at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, is the coordinator for the Andean Condor Species Survival Plan. Since 1990, a total of 65 Andean condors, raised in American and Colombian zoos, have been released in Colombia, and condors have also been released in Venezuela and Peru. Andean condors were also temporarily released in California to help test release techniques for their northern cousins in the California condor program. (The Andean condors were later recaptured and released in Colombia.) By using satellite and radiotelemetry, Colombian biologists have been able to track and monitor the released birds and have found that they have survived, matured, and are now beginning to breed in the wild, a significant milestone of success for any reintroduction program.