One of the largest and longest-living birds on earth, the Andean condor is a symbol of power, health and liberty for the people of Patagonia. On a clear morning at the Patagonia National Park Project, it is a wonderful treat to see the massive condor soaring down out of the Andes, skimming over the canopy of the southern beech forests with smooth, almost motionless flight.
Andean condors are truly impressive in size, as tall as 1.2 meters and with the largest wingspan of any living bird, measuring as much as 3 meters. These huge birds can weigh up to 26 pounds—that’s massive for a flying creature. In order to get around efficiently with all that bulk, the Andean condor prefers to roost high up on the bare cliffs of the Andes, where it can catch a strong thermal updraft in the warm morning air. Under good conditions, the condor can fly as far as 300km in a single day, soaring as high as 16,400 feet.
Andean condors have a very long lifespan, reaching up to 50 years or more in the wild. They will reach sexual maturity in 6-8 years, at which point most birds will mate for life. Each mating pair will produce a single chick every two years. The female lays her egg on a bare cliff ledge, and both parents share the duty of incubation. The chick will not learn to fly until it is 6 months old, and will rely on its parents for another two years before it can survive on its own.
Andean condors live on a diet comprised mainly of the carrion of large mammals, though it has been known to feed on weak newborn animals and the eggs of seabirds along its coastal range. The condor’s bald head is actually a clever adaptation designed to maintain hygiene when feeding on some less savory carcasses. All throughout Patagonia, the condor’s original food sources–mainly large herds of guanacos–have become scarce in the last century as native grasslands have been transformed into estancias. The condor has adapted to feed on livestock carrion, drawing the ire—and the bullet fire—of ranchers who believe the bird to be killing their stock. On the contrary, lacking talons or other natural weaponry as a hawk or falcon might have, the condor is incapable of taking down live prey of the size of a sheep or a cow.
Due to the increasing human impacts on critical habitat corridors in the last half-century, the Andean condor is now in serious danger of extinction, with populations across South America in severe decline. Poaching and poisoning by both ranchers and recreational hunters alike have devastated wild populations, and low reproduction rates have meant even greater population instability. The viability of young condors has also been compromised by increasing pesticide concentrations throughout the food chain.
As populations of its native food sources like the guanaco begin to bounce back and stabilize in the Patagonia National Park project, we hope to see increasing numbers of Andean condor chicks surviving into adulthood, and going on to fulfill their place as the elegant scavengers of the Andean steppe and mountains of Patagonia. Yet we alone cannot recover condor populations, as these large birds cover vast amounts of territory in their movements. Keeping condors safe from poison and bullets requires increasing regional awareness and pride in these magnificent creatures.