The Andean Condor: truth and mythology of a majestic andean bird
29 October 2019
Birds are some of the most beautiful and strange animals in the world. Andean birds are no exception, with such impressive species as the giant hummingbird (Patagona gigas), numerous raptor species such as the black-chested turkey buzzard, and many other birds, including ducks, ibis, songbirds, and many more. Certainly, Peru’s Andes are a birdwatchers paradise!
Some of the world’s largest birds (in wingspan) include pelican and albatross species. But combining weight and wingspan, the world’s largest bird is the Andean condor, a huge majestic creature that inhabits the Andes Mountains, from Colombia south to Chile and Argentina.
The Andean condor
Contrary to popular belief, the Andean condor (Vultur gryphus) is not closely related to vulture species, but it is the only species of its own genus. The Andean condor’s maximum wingspan has been measured up to 10 ft. 10 in. (3.3 m.), and the maximum weight of males can be up to 33 lb., or 15 kilograms. Unlike many other bird of prey, the females are smaller than the males.
Condor size is impressive, but it is not their only unique characteristic. Scientists believe birds are descended from dinosaurs, and the condor certainly looks the part. Seeing a condor spread its wings and take flight, one can easily imagine giant prehistoric pterodactyls (although condors are, of course, much smaller).
They are mostly black, with a ring of white feathers around their neck. Their huge beaks and large talons, and the male’s reddish crown, are certainly impressive features that give them a somewhat fearsome appearance. However, they are peaceful, highly intelligent creatures that are harmless to humans and most other animals.
Condors are also one of the longest-lived bird species. Condors in captivity have lived to over 70 years. Breeding pairs are monogamous. The young begin to fly at six months, and they remain with the parents for up to two years. Like vultures, condors are mainly scavengers, feeding on the carcasses of both wild and domesticated animals. Occasionally, they might hunt for small animals such as rodents and rabbits.
Condor habitat is usually open high mountains up to 5,000 ft. They might nest on high cliffs, and are often seen soaring above Peru’s deep canyons, such as the Colca Canyon, and around the mountain ranges of the Cusco region. But condors also range to the coastal deserts and beaches of the Peruvian coast, where marine mammal and bird carcasses provide them with plenty of food.
Such a large, distinctive bird as the Andean condor naturally became a spiritual and religious symbol since the earliest inhabitants, who as far back as 4,000 years ago represented condors in their paintings and ceramics. In Andean religious mythology, condors were considered a symbol of power, the rulers of the upper world, and intermediaries with the world of spirits and with Inti, the sun deity.
As such, condors represent the upper layer of the chakana, the symbolic Andean cross. Condor remains are ocassionally used in traditional native medicine, and at some remote locations captive condors are used in native religious ceremonies. However, due the endangered status of the condor, as well as animal rights issues, those practices are discouraged and are becoming much less prevalent.
An endangered species
Today, condors are protected wildlife. They are admired by both Andean people and visitors, and, in fact, they are important national symbols in all the Andean nations. They are the National Bird of most Andean countries (but not in Peru, where the splendid Andean cock-of-the-rock holds that distinction). Condors are displayed on many coats-of-arms, stamps and commercial logos. Condorito, a sly little condor, is a popular Latin American comic character.
Aside from those symbols, the best way to see real condors in the wild is to travel and trek in Peru. Although it really is a matter of good luck and timing, since their populations have been reduced, you just might see a condor or two soaring above on the upper air currents while enjoying a trek to Ausangate, the most beautiful mountain range in southern Peru.
Please feel free to contact us at andeanlodges.com to reserve your state-of-the art trek to Ausangate, where you’ll delight in seeing and photographing a wide diversity of birds, Andean wildlife, and of course, hundreds of lovely llamas and alpacas; all living in a spectacular mountain landscape. And don’t forget to bring your binoculars!