Ecología del condor andino

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Vultures are all large, carrion-eating birds.  For years, it was believed that all vultures were raptors, members of the order Falconiformes.  In 1994, however, it was discovered that the vultures inhabiting the American continents share a common ancestor with storks and ibises.  Now, American vultures, or New World vultures, are recognized as Ciconiiformes, in the family Cathartidae.  European, African, and Asian vultures are recognized as Old World vultures (family Accipitridae, subfamily Aegypiinae).  There are 15 species of Old World Vultures and 7 Species of New World Vultures.

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Description:

As an adaptation for hygiene, the condors head and neck have few feathers, exposing the skin to the sterilizing effects of dehydration and ultraviolet light at high altitudes, and are meticulously kept clean by the bird. The male is differentiated easily from the female by its comb or caruncle that carries on its front and part of the beak. The skin of the neck in the male lies in folds, forming a wattle. The skin of the head and neck is capable of flushing noticeably in response to emotional state, which serves to communicate between individuals. Furthermore, the male is of greater size and has the eye iris of yellowish brown color while that of its mate is reddish; its vision is extraordinary. Its beak is stout with a sharp hook and cutting edges. The female, contrary to the usual rule among birds of prey, is smaller than the male.

It has very strong legs and fingers but with relatively weak blunt nails. The middle toe is greatly elongated, and the hinder one but slightly developed, while the talons of all the toes are comparatively straight and blunt. The feet are thus more adapted to walking as in their relatives the storks, and of little use as weapons as in birds of prey and Old World vultures.

Its youth plumage is of grayish brown color and when adult it is generally bluish black and exhibits a white and large down necklace and also white stains in the extremities of its wings. An adult male can weigh about 12 kilos and measure between the extremes of its beak and tail 1.30 meters. Its spread in flight can reach 3.50 meters

Flight:
Depending almost entirely on strong, warm wind currents to support its soaring flight, the Andean condor is found in regions of high altitude and strong wind. It can fly over about 7000 meters of altitude and in favorable climatic conditions it can maintain the flight during a certain time at about 55 Km/hour. It does not have large pectoral muscles, which is the reason why it only moves its wings when it is necessary, that is, when taking off, landing or in cases of emergency. Its long and broad wings make possible flying as a glider using adroitly the air currents.

A study of Andean Condors in southern Chile found that condors soared most frequently when winds were moderate (25-48 km/hr), and soared least when winds were strong, i.e. over 64 km/hr.

Due to their relatively large weight they soar on warm air currents. Soaring is the act of controlled falling through the air currents. The thermals, a column of warm upward moving air, will push the bird up faster than it falls. The birds move in circles in order to stay within the dimensions of the thermal column. So a circling vulture is not necessarily watching for food. This type of “flying” is very effortless and energy efficient. They are able to change directions with slight movements of their primary “thumb” feathers and their tails. They usually will stay grounded on cloudy days when there are no thermals.

Range/Habitat:
The condor inhabits the Andean mountains, and the southern coasts of South America. Andean Condors forage for food as far as 200 kilometers from their nests.  However, where food is concentrated in a small area, condor foraging ranges are smaller. For example, on the arid coast of Peru, where the ocean washes ashore a “remarkably constant food supply” of dead marine mammals and seabirds, some Andean Condors limit their foraging to “stretches of beach several kilometers long.”

There are three habitat requirements for condors:
(1) reasonably reliable winds or thermals upon which to soar,
(2) foraging habitat that is sufficiently open to discover and access carrion food, and
(3) adequate supplies of carrion.

 

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Diet/Feeding:

The Condor is neither ferocious nor an aggressive predator and has an astonishing capacity to resist hunger and thirst. It can remain as long as one month and a half without eating conserving always its vigor. On the other hand it tends to eat until filled to such a point that it suffers difficulty in taking off.

The Andean Condor feeds mainly on carrion. They prefer large carcasses such as deer or cattle which they spot by looking for other scavengers, who cannot rip through the tougher hides of these larger animals with the efficiency of the larger condor.

Coastal residents often make meals of fish, dead sea lions and whales. Condors living along arid coasts also fly out to offshore islands to raid seabird colonies of eggs and young.  For example, when Murphy (1925) visited Asia Island off the coast of central Peru, he found Andean Condors, Turkey Vultures and gulls feeding on eggs at a large colony of the Guanay Cormorant (Phalacrocorax bougainvilli) that contained “countless eggs and young.”  According to Murphy, the condors, vultures and gulls were all “more abundant and rapacious” there than anywhere else he had visited.  One condor stood in the middle of the cormorant colony, “with a circle of abandoned and rifled nests roundabout.”  When this condor was shot and picked up by its feet, “the albumen and mostly unbroken yolks of a round dozen of fresh eggs slid out of its gullet.” Because virtually no shell fragments were visible in this meal, Murphy suggested that “condors must suck the contents of the eggs through their trough-shaped tongues.”

During his visit to Asia Island, Murphy observed a minimum of 18 condors “flying back and forth slowly” over the cormorant colony and, before noon, watched them all fly back to the mainland.  He added that at Santa Rosita, a nearby island, a reliable informant observed 36 condors descend together upon a Guanay Cormorant colony.  On San Gallan, another island off the coast of Peru, Murphy (1925) found that Andean Condors walked around outside the burrows of Peruvian Diving Petrels and snatched outcomming birds to eat.  Thus, the Andean Condor is not just a scavenger on these islands, but a bird of prey as well, eating adult seabirds and eggs as well as carrion.

When condors descend to feed on a carcass, they often meet other species of scavengers there that are already feeding.  Sometimes condors peacefully join these other scavengers in feeding, but other times they must fight to displace them or else wait until they have finished eating and leave.  Fortunately for condors, their larger body size helps them win encounters with other vultures.

For example, in Peru it was found that the larger species dominated the smaller species. Since condors had the largest body size, they occupied the top of the dominance hierarchy and the other vultures yielded to them.  Turkey vultures were usually the first to arrive at a carcass because of its well-developed sense of smell, Black Vultures second, and condors third.  Yet, when the condors arrived, the other vulture species generally yielded to them.  Condors won 100% of aggressive interactions with Turkey Vultures, 94% with Black Vultures and 100% with King Vultures (Sarcoramphus papa).  At no time did a King Vulture (the second largest species) initiate an encounter with a condor.

Individual condors of the same species may also fight with and displace each other: In northern Patagonia a dominance hierarchy between condors was found based on size, sex and age.  Male condors, which weighed 36-37% more than females, dominated female condors independent of age. In addition, within each sex group, older birds dominated younger birds.  Thus, adult male condors occupied the top of the dominance hierarchy, while juvenile females occupied the bottom. Because males and older females displaced juvenile females at carcasses, juvenile females tended to avoid foraging in the mountains where food was more abundant and encounters with males and older females more likely.  Instead, they foraged more often over the plains where they were less likely to find food, but where they were more likely to avoid encounters with males and older females once they found food.  Males and adult females preferred to forage in the food-rich mountains.

In northern Peru slightly different results were reported.  It was found that while male Andean Condors generally displaced female condors of the same age at carcasses, individual females sometimes displaced individual males that were more than one year younger.

After eating, vultures can often be seen perched in the heat of the sun.  Here, whatever has managed to cling to the few bits of fuzz on their head will be baked off once and for all.

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Reproduction:

Sexual maturity and breeding behavior do not appear in the condor until 5 or 6 years of age. In fall, courtship begins. The male Andean condors displays for his chosen female, standing across from her, and spreading his wings.  Dancing from one foot to the other, he bows his head and clucks to her. Lastly, he turns and shows her the black and white patterns of his back.

The Andean condor prefers roosting and breeding at elevations of 3,000 to 5,000 m (10,000-16,000 ft). Both species of condors, the Californian Condor and the Andean Condor nest primarily on cliffs.  However, detailed information on nest-site characteristics is currently available only for the California Condor. California Condors nest from near sea-level to an altitude of 1830 meters (Snyder et al. 1986).  High elevation nest-sites differ from those at lower elevations in that they more frequently face south, but it is unknown if south-facing cliffs are used more frequently because they are warmer or simply because they are more abundant. The Andean Condor also nests primarily on cliffs, but a few of them have adapted to the conditions of the arid coast of Peru where the terrain is relatively flat. Here some nest sites of this species are little more than partially shaded crannies tucked against boulders on modest slopes.

Condors and large falcons sometimes nest near each other.  Although falcons are smaller in size than condors, they are better defenders of their nests.  Consequently, when falcons aggressively drive away other predators from their nesting territories, they also drive away predators from nearby condor nests, and so can increase the chances that condor eggs and chicks survive. Of course, nesting near falcons is costly for the condors also, since falcons aggressively dive at condors and cause them to waste time and energy to avoid these attacks.  However, the cost is well worth it to the condors if eagles and ravens threaten their nests.

Its nest consist merely of a few sticks placed around the eggs, it deposits one or two bluish-white eggs, weighing about 10 ounces (280 g) and from 3 to 4 inches (75 to 100 mm) in length, during the months of February and March every second year.

The female Condor incubates only once per year one or two white eggs that it deposits in depressions on the almost barren rock, alternating with the male to hatch it from 54 to 58 days.
Nestling condors emerge from the egg naked, and are soon covered with a coat of whitish down.  The down turns grey before it is finally replaced by the new, brown plumage that the fledgeling will maintain for two years, before it attains full adult plumage.  At six months old, the baby is as large as its parents, but it will continue to be fed and cared for until it is almost two years old.
Reaching sexual maturity at the age of eight, Andean condors breed every two years.  They have been recorded living as long as 52 years in captivity. Some sources say that an Andean Condor can get to live about 85 years and surpass the century in wild state.

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Cultural beliefs and perceptions:
The ancient Incas of Peru believed the Andean Condor or “Apu Kuntur” was considered a very special divinity. He was thought to be a messenger from the sun God.  This majestic bird was represented in much of their artwork and jewelry.  An ancient myth tells of the condor daily lifting the sun into the sky, and returning it safely to a sacred lake each night. Another one tells that a dead Condor fell in the courtyard of the Cusquenian Aqllawasi or House of the Virgins of the Sun, interpreting that as the announcement of the Tawantinsuyo’s destruction.

The condor head was a symbol of a clan of special Incan governors, who believed themselves to be descended from the great condor, possessing its speed and power.

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One of best known Peruvian songs is El Cóndor Pasa (The condor passes), composed by Peruvian musician Daniel Alomía Robles. The melody attained world fame years later, in Simon & Garfunkel’s “If I Could.”

Still nowadays for many people around the world the Andean Condor is a symbol of majesty and force and definitely he is a symbol of the Andes.

Become a Mundo Azul conservation volunteer and help protecting the Andean Condor

Read more about how to save the condor 

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