Condor is the name for two species of bird in one of the vulture family. They are the largest flying land birds in the Western Hemisphere.
The South American Condor (Vultur gryphus) inhabits the Andes Mountains. The California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) inhabits the western coast of the United States. Although they are primarily scavengers, feeding on carrion, these species belong to the New World vulture family Cathartidae, related to storks and not closely related to Old World vultures, which are in the family Accipitridae along with hawks, eagles and kites.
On average condors measure about 4 ft (1.2 m) from the point of the beak to the extremity of the tail and 10 ft (3 m) between the tips of its wings, and can weigh over 30 lb (13 kilograms). Although other birds may have larger wingspan, the wing chord of the condor (distance from leading to trailing edge of wing) is exceptionally large, resulting in a very large total wing area, an adaptation for soaring.
The adult plumage is a uniform black, with the exception of a frill of white feathers almost surrounding the base of the neck and, especially in the male, large patches or bands of white on the wings which do not appear until the completion of the first molting. As an adaptation for hygiene, the head and neck have no 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 head, which is much flattened above, is in the male crowned with a caruncle or comb, while 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.
The middle toe is greatly elongated and the hinder one 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 or organs of prehension as in birds of prey and Old World vultures. The female, contrary to the usual rule among birds of prey, is smaller than the male.
The condor does not reach sexual maturity or exhibit breeding behavior until 5 or 6 years of age. They may live for 50 years or more and mate for life. The South American condor prefers roosting and breeding at elevations of 10,000″“16,000 ft (3,000 to 5,000 m). The nest – consisting merely of a few sticks placed around the eggs – can be found on inaccessible ledges of rock. The female 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 egg hatches after 54″“58 days of incubation by both parents. If the chick or egg is lost or removed, another egg is laid to take its place. Researchers and breeders take advantage of this behavior to double the reproductive rate by taking the first egg away for hand-rearing, causing the parents to lay a second egg which they are generally allowed to raise.
The young are covered with a whitish down until almost as large as their parents. They are able to fly after six months, but continue to roost and hunt with their parents until age two, when they are displaced by a new clutch. There is a well developed social structure within large groups of condors, with competition to determine a ‘pecking order’ by body language, competitive play behavior, and a wide variety of vocalizations, even though the condor has no voice box.
The condor is very graceful in flight. The lack of a large sternum to anchor correspondingly large flight muscles identifies them physiologically as primarily soarers. The birds flap their wings on rising from the ground, but after attaining a moderate elevation they seem to sail on the air. Charles Darwin commented on having watched them for half an hour without once observing a flap of their wings. They prefer to roost on high places from where they can launch without major wing-flapping effort.
Wild condors inhabit large territories and often travel 150 miles (250 km) a day in search of 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. In the wild they are intermittent eaters, often going for a few days without eating, then gorging themselves on several pounds at once, sometimes to the point of being unable to lift off the ground.
Condors are the national bird of Bolivia, Chile, Colombia and Ecuador and play important roles in the folklore and mythology of South America, similar to the role the eagle plays in North America.
Humans have done significant damage to the condor population. Their low birth rate, late age of sexual maturity, and propensity to mate for life all make them vulnerable to loss of population. The California Condor is in danger of extinction; by 1986, it is estimated that only 17 individuals were left alive (2002 population stands at about 200). Significant damage to the condor population is attributed to hunting, lead poisoning (from eating animals containing lead shot), DDT poisoning, and habitat destruction. Beginning in the 1980s, a captive breeding program was undertaken to try to restore the species. Condors were released in 1991 and 1992 in California, and again in 1996 in Arizona near the Utah border. Unanticipated deaths among these populations occurred due to contact with power lines and other factors. In 2003 the first bird fledged in the wild since 1981.