I remember the first time I saw an Andean condor […]I struggled to warm my feet following a river crossing in frigid water. I looked to the sky and saw a pair of condors soaring. They lifted my spirit and helped me on my way.

– Benjamin Skolnik, American Bird Conservancy.

The males look like a vulture slept with a Brachiosaur, but I agree with Skolnik’s sentiment: it’s an incredible bird.

Seriously, it is. Stick with it. Photo by chrisbeez.

It doesn’t have a syrinx – the bird version of a larynx – so visions of majestic shrieks clattering over Andean rockfaces and ricocheting over the valley aren’t going to happen. Instead, it lets its 3 metre (10-foot) wingspan do the talking. Well, that and the odd clicking or grunting.

But we’re the ones who should be speechless that this 14 kilo bird can even get off the ground, let alone stay there.

Even when it’s just downed almost half its body weight in meat, the Andean condor can still fly, because it uses its vast wings to ride the thermals. Efficiently freeloading off the skies, it can stay airborne with very little effort, with various sources exclaiming it can get by on a couple of wing-flaps per hour or less. With all that saved energy, the sky’s the limit! Kind of.

This awesome raptor has been recorded soaring as high as 5,500 metres (18,044 feet). To put this into perspective, this would reach just below the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, and exceeds the record of the highest permanent human settlement. Not surprising, because at this altitude there’s only about 52% of the oxygen found at sea level.

This high flyer is a fan of high rise too, roosting in colonies on cliff edges about 3,000 metres (10,000 ft) up.

It’s nice to have something to come home to.

Totting up to 50 birthdays – even 75 in captivity – the long-lived Andean condor pairs for life. Unusually for what’s known as a New World vulture, male and female Andean condors don’t look alike. The females have red eyes while the males have yellow, and they also sport the aforementioned Brachiosaur comb and a yellowy neck for when they want to show off.

A few wing flaps, hisses, and clicks can attract “the one”,  and once paired, they will breed every two years.

Photo by Public Domain Images.

They don’t seemed fussed about any nesting material, but despite this, their parenting is far from bare bones. Both take turns incubating and feeding the chick, and it will remain under their care for a while even after it’s fledged. Having said this, for a bird distantly related to the stork, it brings a distinct lack of babies.

It’s partial to someone else’s, but it usually dines on someone else’s dollar. Shockingly, this can go in one of two ways.

The standard fare for an Andean condor is dead llama, or other large herbivores romping through the Andes. The condor lets nature, stupidity or other animals’ hunger take its course, and then swoops in for a meal and an inadvertent tidy up, hence the lack of feathers on its head to avoid too much mess. Increasingly, the llama is being replaced with more alien grazers. In Argentina, 98.5% of the condor’s food comes from “exotic” cattle, so any change in livestock grazing can affect its menu. It also places it in the all-too-often literal firing line when cattle turn up dead.

Poisoning, both accidental and deliberate, is one response to suspected cattle predation, or it can be shot outright, as in the case of Felipe, the first tagged Andean condor released in Ecuador.

And, much like the African hooded vulture, it knows it can suck to be famous.

Known from artwork as far back as 2,500 BC, the Andean condor has long been believed to be the ruler of the Upper World, or companion of the rising sun and messenger of the gods. As a result, roasting its eyes would of course improve your eyesight, its stomach would cure your breast cancer, and its feathers under your bed would ward off nightmares.

In one summer ritual of south-central Peru, symbolising a god defeating the Spanish conquistadors, other animals are roped into this too: a condor is captured and tied to the back of a bull, the latter of which is pecked by the condor and also attacked by bullfighters.

Among ceramics of the Nasca, a Peruvian culture from 200-700 AD, there’s a suspiciously similar “Horrible Bird” depicted with the same head comb, wing colour and talons, although the latter are sometimes replaced with human feet. It’s often shown munching on windpipes, lungs and human limbs, and even wearing the odd string of human skulls. At least it goes both ways in the artwork!

Of course, even less traumatic expressions of reverence –ecotourism – have their pitfalls.

On the one hand, raising awareness can help reassure farmers that it’s not out to get their livestock, but on the other, for such a magnificent bird, it doesn’t like attention.

In Herrmann et al.’s study in Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia, they found that Andean condors would leave their roosts if people ventured within 500 metres (1,640 ft), and wouldn’t return until long after. People on foot seemed more troublesome than vehicles, with the obvious exception of helicopters, but key activities in the park are climbing, hiking and cycling, so not a great combination.

I’m making it sound like these raptors are very delicate, but you don’t get to be the biggest bird of prey in the world for nothing.

Photo by Lolame.

Death is a part of life, and scavenging saves energy, so the Andean condor has been able grow large without much effort in the grand scheme of things. Its Latin name Vultur gryphus, for instance, relates to the pulling and tearing of and the sharpness of its beak, and since plunging your head into dead things to devour their insides is dangerous work, it has an incredibly strong resistance to certain bacteria. And, its munching on dead herbivores as cleanly and quickly as possible stops botulism, anthrax and other hideous nasties before they can spread.

Given all this, I’m sure the Andean condor is acutely aware that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

TLDR

Latin: Vultur gryphus

What? The biggest bird of prey in the world.

Where? South America, namely the Andes of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina and Chile.

How big? The largest raptor in the world, it has a wingspan of 3 metres / 10 feet, and stands about 1 metre / 3 feet tall.

Endangered? Considered Near Threatened, but locally endangered in Ecuador.

Probable motto: No I don’t work for my food anymore. How do you think I got this big?

They look…interesting. Do they need my help at all?

Poisoning, human disturbance and persecution, and a low reproductive rate stack the odds against it, unfortunately.

The World Land Trust has general conservation campaigns in Ecuador and Argentina, and aided in the purchase of an Ecuadorian biological preserve too. The Wildlife Conservation Society is researching Andean condors in Bolivia, Chile and Argentina, and the Peregrine Fund also helps look out for the world’s biggest (living!) raptor.

Just to prove I’m not fibbing:

Andean condor“. No date. American Bird Conservancy.

Andean condor“. No date. National Geographic.

Andean condor“. No date. San Diego Zoo.

Andean condor“. No date. Welsh Mountain Zoo.

Andean condor“. No date. World Land Trust.

BirdLife International. 2017. “Vultur gryphusThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species” 2017: e.T22697641A117360971.

Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. No date. “Condor“. Britannica.com.

Greshko, Michael. 2018. “Exclusive: Massive ancient drawings found in Peruvian desert“. National Geographic.

Herrmann, Thora Martina et al. 2010. “Roost Sites and Communal Behavior of Andean Condors in Chile“, Geographical Review, 100(2):246-262.

High altitude“. No date. Altitude Physiology Expeditions.

JefftheZooGuy. 2007. “Revisit the world’s biggest flying bird, the Andean condor“. YouTube.

Peregrine Fund. 2015. “Andean condor research“. YouTube.

Wolfe, Elizabeth Farkass. 1981. “The Spotted Cat and the Horrible Bird: Stylistic change in Nasca 1-5 ceramic decoration“, Ñawpa Pacha 19(1):1-62.

Featured image credit: Photo by jmarti20.