Andean Condor

The Andean condor (Vultur gryphus) has an important ecological role as a scavenger. By quickening the decomposition rate of dead animals, thus diminishing the risk of disease associated with the slow rotting of cadavers. It also has evolutionarily importance due to its sense of smell, unique in its genus and unusual in the bird kingdom. It has a long lifespan, comparable to humans, with up to 50 years in the wild, and up to 80 years in captivity. It is around 142 cm tall and its wingspan can reach 330 cm. Its distribution range spreads through the Andean countries of Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia, from the north of Colombia to the extreme south of the Chilean and Argentine Patagonia. Since ancient times, the Andean condor has been an important part of the Andean mythology and traditions. For example, the Incas considered it the immortal representation of the Jananpacha: the upper world, sky, and future.

Various threats face the Andean condor. As a bird with natural small populations, a wide distribution range and low reproductive rates, the viability of its populations are a true concern. Its sporadic attacks on livestock have contributed to its poor public image, and, as a consequence, there have been illegal carcass poisoning events. The practice of strapping the bird to bulls in bull-fights during the Yawar Fiesta, and climate change only exacerbate their already vulnerable situation.

The Andean condor lives in the entire Andean region, which allows us to use our strategic position in each member country to develop regional initiatives. We work to establish a baseline to understand its historic and actual threats, and to identify the gaps in the information necessary for its conservation which will allow a prioritization of high quality research initiatives. In Peru, in addition to providing technical support to the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation in its conservation initiatives, we have also been analyzing data to create a preliminary map of condor distribution in Peru and Bolivia, based on observations entered on Cornell University Lab of Ornithology’s eBird platform and reported in interviews held by WCS staff. This map will allow us to identify condor habitats that superpose with communities, extractive activities, infrastructure, protected areas, and other land uses, as well as with different threats and actors that need to be taken account of in the creation of a national plan of action for the conservation of this majestic bird.

10 facts about the Andean condor:

  1. Its name in quechua is kuntur and the Incas believed it was immortal-- it represented the Jananpacha, the upper world of the sky and future.
  2. The distance between the points of its spread wings (~3.3 meters) represents the largest wingspan of any terrestrial bird.
  3. The Andean condor is part of four national shields, where it represents different values: Bolivia (boundaryless pursuit), Chile (strength), Colombia (liberty and order), and Ecuador (power, grandeur, and valeur).
  4. This bird is monogamous and both parents incubate the egg. Its chicks stay with its parents up to 2 years before facing the world alone.
  5. In certain seasons of the year (October in Peru), the Andean condor flies from the peaks of the Andes to the Pacific coast to eat sea lion carcasses and discarded placentas.
  6. It’s one of the only predators that can break the hard guanaco skin with its beak alone.
  7. Andean condors mature sexually late in life (a minimum of 5 years, with reports of the first chick at 11 years), and they only have one chick every 2-3 years. This makes them very vulnerable to threats due to low recovery rates.
  8. They form part of the family Cathartidae, which comes from the Greek word kathartes meaning “he who cleans.”
  9. Andean condors are thermal soarers, which means that they rise with the air current, helping them spot carcasses from great heights and descend upon them without wasting much energy.
  10. The Andean condor displays sexual dimorphism-- this is when animals of the same species have different body forms based on biological sex. The male Andean condor has a white collar and a crest, while the female Andean condor does not.

Top photo: Walter H. Wust