The Andean Condor is a South American large black vulture home to, as the name suggests, the Andean mountains. Both male and female have a uniform black plumage, except for a frill of white feathers at the base of the neck, and especially in the male, large bands of white on the wings. Juveniles have a gray-brown colour and a brown ruff. The almost featherless head and neck are kept meticulously clean and their red to blackish-red colour flushes in response to the bird’s emotional state. In the male, the skin of the neck lies in folds forming a wattle, while the head is crowned with a dark red caruncle. Males have brown irises, while those of females are deep red.
With an overall length of 100-130cm and a wingspan of up to 3.2m, the Andean Condor is one of the largest flying birds in the Western Hemisphere. It weighs around 11 kg (24lb) and contrary to other vultures and birds of prey, the male is larger than the female. Inhabiting the Andean mountains and adjacent Pacific coasts, from Venezuela and Colombia in the north – where it is exceedingly rare – to Tierra del Fuego (Argentina) in the south. Its habitat is mainly composed of open grasslands and alpine areas up to 5,000m. The Andean Condor spots carrion, its main diet, from the air in non-forested areas or follows other scavengers such as corvids or other vultures. It prefers large carcasses such as llamas, alpacas, rheas, guanacos, deer and armadillos, although inland condors also feed on domestic animals such as cattle, sheep and dogs. Condors living around the coast mainly feed on carcasses of marine mammals, but also on eggs of smaller birds whose nests they raid.
Wild condors inhabit large territories, often travelling more than 200km a day in search of carrion. In the wild, they are intermittent eaters, often going for a few days without eating. Sometimes, having gorged themselves on the meat available, they are not even able to lift off the ground! Andean Condors tear rotting meat with their hooked beak and have to feed while on the ground, as their talons are rather straight and blunt and not adapted to grasping. Because of their size and weight, these birds prefer to live in windy areas where they can glide on air currents with little effort. They nest on inaccessible rocky ledges and use heat thermals to rise high in the skies, often gliding for long periods without a single movement of their vast wings.
Andean Condors may live for 50 years or more, and mate for life. They reproduce slowly, raising only one offspring every other year. If the chick or egg is lost or removed, another egg is laid to take its place. Young are able to fly after six months, but continue to roost and hunt with their parents until age two, while sexual maturity and breeding behaviour do not appear until the bird is normally five or six years old. The Andean Condor is considered near threatened (the current population is approximately 10,000) and relies on captive breeding and reintroduction programmes for its survival. The bird is a national symbol of Argentina, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia and Ecuador, and the national bird of the latter four countries. It plays an important role in the folklore and mythology of South American Andean regions, being considered a symbol of power and health. Colombia and Chile had banknotes featuring the bird, and many South American countries depict it on coats of arms and stamps.