The Andean condor (Vultur gryphus) is not your typical raptor. The Incas thought so much of this massive bird of prey that they believed it brought the sun into the sky every morning and was no less than a direct messenger to the gods. Admittedly not helping conservation efforts much, it is believed to this day by some people that the bird holds such powers that eating its stomach can cure breast cancer, that consuming roasted condor eyes improves eyesight and that leaving a condor feather under the bed is a sure plan to ward off nightmares. With a 9- to 11-foot wingspan that allows them to fly at altitudes of over 16,000 feet and for up to one hundred miles without flapping their wings once, it’s no wonder this bird has always captivated attention (condors have been the star of the show of Andean art since 2500 BC).
I will never forget the first time I saw a glimpse of an Andean condor. I had recently moved to gorgeous Patagonia and was outside in my backyard, lying in a hammock. I saw strange shadows moving on the ground and looked up to the sky to see what might be causing them. I saw in the distance what I assumed was a hawk or an eagle until I watched it circle up and up over the course of ten minutes to elevations that made no sense to me. I could still see its form, a speck in the sky, but to me, it seemed to go to heights that a commercial airplane would be found at! I could not wrap my head around what size a bird would have to be to still be visible at such a distance. While I did not catch any particular details of what the bird looked like that day, I knew that I had been in the presence of something beyond intriguing. And the more I learned over the years since, the more fascinated I have become by this raptor that has represented the heavenly world in the Andean mythology and is currently the national symbol of Peru, Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, Columbia and Bolivia.
Let’s talk about those legendary big ole wings of these enigmatic “New World vultures.” First, only a few species of the albatross and the Great White pelican have a larger wingspan. If you are ever lucky enough to see an Andean condor in person, they are wonderful to photograph. They often perch with their massive wings outspread, sunning themselves as they seem to enjoy the feel of the warm sun on their backs. They spread their wings to allow the most sunlight and warmth to reach as many of their feathers as possible (the feathers are brown in their youth and turn to black and white at about six years of age). When spread out, the wing feathers look a bit like outstretched fingertips. These “fingertips” help the condor to make fine adjustments in flight, functioning like wing flaps on an airplane. Because they are so heavy (up to 33 pounds!), even their enormous wingspan needs some help to keep them aloft. For this reason, these birds are mostly found in really windy areas where they can glide on air currents with little effort. While they love the Andes mountains (we often see them on our Nat Hab Patagonia Wilderness and Wildlife Explorer trip), they also live near coasts that have strong ocean breezes and even deserts like the Atacama in northern Chile that feature strong thermal air currents. By gliding from thermal to thermal, a condor may need to flap its wings only once every hour if it’s feeling ambitious.
Andean condors play a key role in a healthy, well-balanced environment because of their important role as nature’s recyclers. Andean condors usually choose to live in wide-open areas that allow them to spot food or carrion easily. They will feed on a variety of dead animals, including deer, alpacas, llamas, sheep, cattle and goats. While they prefer these larger carcasses, they will also feed on smaller animals such as rabbits, wild boars and foxes. Consuming wildlife carcasses helps reduce the spread of diseases such as anthrax and botulism. Along the coasts, condors will feed on dead marine animals like seals or fish. These birds do not have sharp predator’s claws, but they will raid birds’ nests for eggs or even young hatchlings. These birds of prey can feast on more than 15 pounds of meat at one time and get so stuffed that they are often not able to fly after such a filling meal. There are many misconceptions about the condor’s role in the food chain, so the threatened condors are much too often shot or poisoned by ranchers and farmers to “protect” their livestock. Currently, only around 6,700 Andean condors are estimated to be living in the wild.
With most birds of prey, the female is larger than the male. But that is not the case with the Andean condor. Males generally weigh anywhere from 25 to 33 pounds, but females come in a bit lighter at 18 to 24 pounds. Males have a very distinctive comb on their heads and have yellow eyes, while females have red eyes. This difference in appearance between the females and males is known as sexual dimorphism, and the Andean condor is the only New World vulture to show this trait. During courtship displays, the male has a cool trick up his sleeve. The skin of his neck flushes and can change from dull red to bright yellow, and then he inflates it. He approaches the female with his neck outstretched, reveals his inflated neck while hissing, then extends his wings and stands erect while clicking his tongue. What female condor could possibly resist? Fun fact: The Andean condor doesn’t have a syrinx (similar to our larynx), so they are limited to making hissing, grunting or tongue-clicking sounds. If his chosen lady decides to go ahead and mate with him, reproduction is slow with these birds. A mating pair produces only a single offspring every other year, and both parents must care for their young for a full year. An interesting trait is that when the Andean condor loses its egg, they have the ability to immediately lay another one. In captivity, zookeepers will use this to their advantage and actually remove the condor’s eggs and artificially incubate them, inspiring the condor to lay more eggs. This strategy is helping to bolster the captive-breeding programs.
Condors have been known to live as long as seventy years. It should come as no big shock then that condors have been associated with the secrets of longevity and wellness. This is sadly why they are poached so much—for their organs and bones to be used in traditional medicine. Condors also face threats from loss of habitat from human interference (these birds tend to stay far away from human disturbance, causing their range to decrease dramatically), killing for traditional rituals, pesticide poisoning and lead poisoning due to eating bullets stuck in carrions.
If condor sighting is on your bucket list, not all areas of Patagonia are ideal for spotting them. Much of Patagonia is made up of wide flat plains, which is not ideal condor territory since it doesn’t create the large sweeps of hot air that enable a condor to soar. For the best chance, head to the mountainous areas of Patagonia, such as Torres del Paine National Park. This park is not only the home to the Paine Massif (a jaw-droppingly beautiful chunk of mountains bursting out of the Patagonian plains), but it’s also home to a very large number of guanacos. These llama-like animals are a very favorite food of condors, meaning they tend to stick around waiting to pounce when they die. To increase your chances of spotting this bird, know that there are relatively specific times of day that the Andean condor leaves its nest and is active. The birds are most often spotted soaring in the morning from around 8 am to 10 am and in the late afternoon from 3:30 pm to 4:30 pm. So, pack some decent wind gear, a camera or binoculars, head south and experience for yourself why these fabled birds have been so revered throughout thousands of years of history.