Releasing Condors in Patagonia National Park
Thanks to a partnership with the Chilean Ornithologist Union (UNORCH, after its Spanish acronym) and the Livestock and Agriculture Service (SAG, after its Spanish acronym), we’ve been collaborating on efforts to conserve the condor in Patagonia since 2014. We began by working with our partners to release three condors in the Chacabuco Valley area of what is now Patagonia National Park. The birds were rescued in Las Torres Lake and transported to the Raptor Rehabilitation Center in Talagante. With the help of various park neighbors, we were able to not only return the birds to their natural habitat, but also increase community awareness about the condor’s importance in the local ecosystem.
We’re also currently collaborating with Aves Chile to reinforce condor populations through species monitoring, the release of rehabilitated condors, community events, and more.
The Andean condor is the largest scavenger bird. It’s an excellent flyer, taking strategic advantage of the rising air currents to soar in seemingly endless flights across valleys and mountains without moving its wings.
Its role as a scavenger makes it a vital part of the ecosystem, helping in decomposition processes by feeding on carrion that other animals can no longer eat due to its fungal or bacterial content. This lowers the health risks caused by the presence of cadavers. This species dominates over other scavenger birds and over carnivorous mammals such as the fox. Once they’ve found a food source, condors do not descend immediately, preferring to instead fly over the dead animal or perch in a nearby spot with a good view. They can then wait for hours or even days before descending to eat.
Adult condors of both sexes present similar plumage coloring: black with a white collar along the neck. Male condors also have a white crest and weigh between 24 and 33 pounds, while females do not have a crest and weigh between 17 and 24 pounds, making condors the only raptors where the male weighs more than the female. From beak to tail, the adult condor measures 4.2 feet, with a wingspan of up to 10.8 feet. The condor has one of the longest lifespans of any bird in the world, living up to more than 70 years of age.
In addition to its ecological importance, the condor is a symbol of the Andes Mountains, long venerated by indigenous peoples.
Distribution and habitat
The Andean condor can be found from Venezuela down to Cape Horn, and is strongly associated with the Andes Mountains. In Chile, it can be found in the Andes, as well as in the coastal cliffs in the north of the country, the coastal range in the central zone, and along the fjords and the Patagonian steppe in the far south.
The population of the Andean condor has decreased significantly in the northern Andes. The populations in Chile and Argentina are more numerous, but also show some signs of decline.
The condor is monogamous and mates for life. It builds its eggs in caves and along cliffs, in territory exclusive to the mates. The condor’s fertility rate is extremely low. One factor influencing its fertility is the lengthy interactions between the mates in advance of egg laying (8–9 months), featuring periods of courtship, copulation, and searching for a nesting site. Another is the inconsistent availability of the condor’s food source, which can make a successful reproductive season less feasible. Another factor is the logistics of egg hatching: there’s a long incubation period of approximately 60 days, with the female laying just one egg at a time. The chick stays in the nest for 6 to 8 months, and also stays dependent on its parents for food and survival for a long time after leaving the nest––around a full year. This means that reproduction only occurs every two years, a period that can also be prolonged based on food supply. Finally, fertility rates are also impacted by the fact that condors do not reach maturity until 6 years of age. A female often will not lay her first fertile egg until age 8, given that the first egg is likely infertile.
Main food sources
Condors feed mainly on the carrion of medium-to-large vertebrates––nowadays, typically domestic cattle. They previously depended on the wild camelids distributed throughout most of the Andes Mountains.
Almost all threats to the condor are of human origin. This includes illegal hunting, lead poisoning, illegal wildlife trade, use as pets, collisions with electrical infrastructure, a decline in food sources, and increased use of poison to control predator pressure on domestic livestock.