How does one save the world’s largest flying bird? This is the question that I, and many others, will try to answer in the coming year.
Found in and around the Andes mountains of South America, the Andean condor is one of nature’s superlatives. The average person could curl up and sleep comfortably on just one of their wings. A big male, weighing up to 33 lbs, outweighs many Welsh corgis (and possibly appears in some of their nightmares). In low flight, they appear more plane than bird, and even sound the part due to engine-like vibrations that result as wind whizzes through the “fingers” of their wings.
In foraging flight, they may travel over 100 miles in search of carrion, and have been seen at altitudes greater than 15,000 feet. Flying among the snow-capped volcanos of the South American highlands, it’s quite possible the Andean condor enjoys the greatest views of any creature on earth.
The Andean condor belongs to the family of New World vultures (Cathartidae), and can be thought of as a cousin to the other six members: California condor, turkey vulture, black vulture, lesser yellow-headed vulture, greater yellow-headed vulture, and king vulture. The Andean condor is not as threatened as the California condor (which walked to the very brink of extinction, blew a kiss into the void, and then began to back slowly away), but is nevertheless listed as “Near Threatened” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Populations in the southern portion of its
range, in Chile and Argentina, appear relatively stable and strong. In the northern part of the range, in places like Venezuela, Columbia, and Ecuador, the situation is much bleaker.
In Ecuador, where I am working as a biologist for Fundacion Condor, there have been four population estimates of Andean condors in the past 20 years. Not one concluded the population was over 100 birds, and the most recent attempt, in 2008-2009, could confirm fewer than 30 individuals in the species’ stronghold in the north of the country. What is going on with the condors in northern South America?
The list of potential threats to Andean condors is daunting. They may ingest bullet fragments from human-hunted animals, and die from lead poisoning. They may feed junk to and inadvertently kill their young. (Note: Large vultures, such as condors, feed mostly on muscle and viscera and will eat small foreign objects in a search for either calcium or indigestible material that aids the expulsion of hair from the digestive tract. This behavior can be lethal on our increasingly human-dominated planet where sharp and toxic litter items are common.) Humans may shoot them as trophies or pests of livestock. Ranchers may poison them. They may strike powerlines in flight. The list goes on: habitat loss, DDT-induced reproductive failure, starvation from human-mediated changes in food supplies, human disturbance, and yet unidentified sources of toxicity. Unfortunately, and critically, the significance of each of these threats is unclear. One thing, however, is certain: Man is the cause, directly or indirectly, of every single threat.
Part of the reason Andean condors are now endangered in Ecuador is because the species is adapted to low mortality. A small increase in the death rate can cause a population crash. Consider the following. Fifteen years ago, about 12 Andean condors in Ecuador died at a single poisoned carcass. Suppose we want to replace those 12 condors. How long do you think it would take?
We will borrow two breeding condor pairs from the population to get started. Before long, each pair has laid a single egg in an inaccessible cave on an Andean cliff face. Two months later the eggs hatch, revealing two improbable creatures. Six months later the young birds jump off their cliffs and take their first terrifying flights. A year later the birds, one male and one female, gain independence from their parents. Six years later, having finally reached sexual maturity, the two birds establish a pair bond and begin their first reproduction attempt.
Unfortunately, due to inexperience, this attempt fails. One year later they try again, and successfully rear a young condor. Our two birds, and their offspring when sexually mature, have great luck in all future breeding attempts. Still, a total of approximately 25 years is needed to replace the 12 poisoned condors that were wiped out in a matter of minutes.
The Andean condor is believed by some to be a messenger between the divine and earthly worlds. It remains to be seen whether this majestic bird will continue to pay congress to the earthly world. The multidisciplinary condor research team is now working to identify threats, identify critical habitat, and begin a captive breeding program. Stay tuned.
Proyecto Cóndor Andino
Fundación Cóndor, Parque Cóndor