Flight of the Condor

In Ecuador and Peru the world´s largest flying bird gets a helping hand

01-01-2000 // Tui De Roy - Photographs by Tui De Roy and Mark Jones

THE SUN has just risen over the frosty brim of the Colca Canyon, high in the Andes of southern Peru. From mountaintop to roaring river, the canyon drops 11,000 feet, nearly twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. As the rays begin to slant into the chasm, which drops a dizzying 4,000 feet beneath my rocky perch, a tiny black-and-white speck appears far below, circling and growing in size as it approaches. An Andean condor is ascending on the first of the thermal air currents set in motion by the morning warmth.

Within minutes I find myself staring into an eye of the world’s biggest flying bird. The adult male passes 15 feet before me, 33 pounds of body supported by expansive wings reaching 10.5 feet tip to tip. He banks and returns, white patches flashing on broad black wings, white ruff pulled snugly over his featherless neck. His splayed wingtip feathers make a whistling noise, not unlike wind in a sailing ship´s rigging, as they slice the air.

For 22 years I have been waiting for an encounter like this, ever since my first distant sighting of an Andean condor circling high above an ice-clad volcano in Ecuador. Though only a dot in the sky, the legendary South American bird ignited my imagination. Now the creature is vanishing from many parts of its former mountain home, and my partner Mark Jones and I are here to photograph it and learn about two very different rescue schemes unfolding near the center of its range.

For many centuries the condor has been revered by Andean civilizations, appearing prominently in pottery, stone sculptures and even a gigantic figure etched into the desert surface of Peru´s Nazca Plains. Yet much remains unknown about the birds. It is clear that they are formidable scavengers, the undertakers of the natural world. They quickly clean up the remains wherever death strikes, helping to prevent the spread of disease among large mammals in the process.

At the time of the Spanish conquest, the Andean condor’s silhouette was a common sight along the entire Andes cordillera. But habitat loss, reduced food sources and relentless persecution have been drawing ever-enlarging blanks in this former range map. The species is all but gone from Venezuela, while in Colombia it is down to only one small natural population. Ecuador has an estimated total of just 80 to 100 birds. Only in Peru, Chile and Argentina’s most precipitous mountains are there pockets of dense populations.

As the morning sun grows warmer, more condors appear from the depths of the Colca Canyon. Today, 18 rise and fall in circles, never flapping a wing but simply adjusting their feathers to harness the rising air currents. Dark juveniles dive-bomb each other in a mock dogfight, while a stately pair of adults cruises back and forth in synchrony, apparently courting in midair, within a wingspan of the cliff face. The breeze picks up, and all disappear high in the sky. Where to? That is part of the mystery. Could these be the same birds that every year turn up hundreds of miles away along the desert coast just in time for the sea lion pupping season?

"Yes, the condors used to nest in all these crags here above our village, but not anymore."

During the weeks that follow, we strive to learn more. We especially want to see where the condors nest. The native Collagua people, whose ancestors have been cultivating the canyon for 14 centuries, are friendly and talkative. "Yes, the condors used to nest in all these crags here above our village, but not anymore" is a comment we hear again and again.

For several days we follow two guides, Collagua Indian Silverio Cutira Llallachachi and biologist Eduardo Mejia, in search of condor nest sites. Crag after crag, we come across perfect condor nesting sites: small deep caves on the faces of vertical cliffs, each with a guano-splattered perch. Silverio claims to have seen birds nesting higher than 18,000 feet. We see no condors, but at one nest in particular, copious whitewash around the cave entrance attests to frequent traffic.

Donning harness and descenders, my climbing rope looped over a rock outcrop, I slide over the lip of the canyon. Over my shoulder, mighty crags dwarf patchworks of barley fields. I ease into the cave´s mouth. About 12 feet high at the entrance, it leads back horizontally about 20 feet to a triangle of flat ground five feet across that is deeply littered with huge black feathers. A musky smell hangs in the air¬¬not unpleasant, but more suggestive of a mammal´s lair than a bird´s nest. There is no doubt this is a favored nesting cave used by generations of condors.

 

In captivity, the birds are known to live 50 years or more, and it is likely that they are among the longest lived of all terrestrial birds. With low natural mortality in the wild, they need to nest only rarely. When they do, the whole cycle may require longer than a year. Just to incubate the huge, single egg takes nearly two months, and after the chick hatches it does not learn to fly for six months. Even after that, both parents assist the fledgling for many more months by feeding it and accompanying it as it acquires condor know-how.

Not until age six will a young condor molt its brown feathers and grow the black-and-white plumage of adults. Meanwhile it must find its place in condor society and establish a bond with what will probably be a lifelong mate. If just a few too many adults die prematurely, the cycle is broken as deaths outstrip hatchings and population numbers begin to plummet.

Walking over a mountain pass, we meet a smiling old man driving a llama train. "We don´t like the condors much because when they have young to feed they´ll swoop right down on our baby alpacas and kill them," he says. "Some time ago the people of the nearby village set out a poisoned carcass, killing 25 condors in retaliation in just one day." Other people tell us, "Condors push full grown cows to their death off cliff edges. They even carry away live sheep in their talons."

 

Learning about condors from the local residents is an exercise in separating myth from fact. Any quick look at condor anatomy, for example, will show that the bird’s feet resemble those of a turkey and therefore are incapable of lifting even a rabbit. But some of the lore is intriguing, including the assertion that the condors have their own leader, a very old male the natives refer to as the "Apu," which in the local tongue means "the wise one." We are told that no matter how hungry condors might be, they will not descend on a carcass until the Apu decides it is safe to do so.

Whatever the truth of such tales, it is true that people long ago hunted wild game down to very low numbers, and condors are forced to rely on the remains of domestic animals ranging free in the mountains. Could the intelligent birds really harass panicked cattle into throwing themselves off a precipice? Or are the birds simply so clever at finding a carcass soon after the animal’s death that its owner concludes they are the perpetrators?

In the Colca Canyon, winter is setting in. With the thin flush of grass on the high slopes fast shriveling up, it is time for local people to cull old, unwanted horses and donkeys. Interested in seeing the condors feed, we construct blinds near a carcass.

We start our vigil crouched between miserably cold boulders, invisible save for a few tiny peepholes in dense shrubbery. Within hours after the carcass is deposited, condors gather in ever-growing numbers, circling high in the sky and perching on rocky ridges. Soon there are so many condors I can count 28 in my narrow field of view. Many more swoop low overhead. The eerie sound of the air passing through wing feathers differs with each bird, from a low treble, to a high whistle, to one siren like whine.

One man concerned about the local feeling about the birds is Mauricio de Romana, who runs a small tourist lodge in the canyon¬¬ and who has founded his own conservation organization, PRODENA (short for Pro Defensa de la Naturaleza, meaning In Defense of Nature). Romana has long nurtured a dream: setting aside land for the first inviolate condor sanctuary. The key, he hopes, will be tourism.

About 10 years ago the first visitors started coming to the Colca Canyon in search of condors; now their annual numbers have swelled to 30,000. Romana is quick to agree that this influx needs to be managed. But, he maintains, the new regional industry could help conservation by pumping money into Peru´s troubled economy. "With tourism taking off, never was there a better justification to ensure the condor´s future," he says.

"With tourism taking off, never was there a better justification to ensure the condor’s future."

The days pass as we huddle in icy conditions from before dawn until after dusk, but the condors still don´t approach the carcass. An Andean gray fox makes regular visits to it. A rare Peruvian huemul doe walks by. One night a chunk of meat is taken from the carcass, possibly the work of a puma. Still the condors wait, leaving at the last light of dusk and returning each morning before the sun rises.

 

Across the Peru-Ecuador border to the north is a team of very different condor advocates. One, Friedemann Koster, is a German biologist who settled in Ecuador almost 20 years ago and became aware of the condor’s plight while filming a documentary on the bird eight years ago. Since then he has teamed up with Fernando Polanco, a young Ecuadoran whose family owns one of the largest cattle ranches in the country. The family’s own dream is to restore ecological integrity to much of its land holdings.

Together Koster and Polanco have launched the Condor Huasi Project, meaning "Home of the Condor" in Quechua. With seven birds rescued from captivity entrusted to them by the government, their goal is to rekindle the link that once existed between the species and native cultures. It’s a tall order, especially since condors this century often are considered vermin, and hunting for the birds often serves as a rite of passage for young men. Using the captive condors as ambassadors for the species, the project teaches native children how their ancestors lived close to the great birds and about the condors´ needs. Meanwhile, Polanco´s family has agreed to allay farmers´ fears of livestock predation by ensuring a weekly food supply for the area’s wild condors, distributed near the open-air aviary that holds the captive birds.

I watch the huge birds interacting far in the distance around favorite perches. Two old males engage in mutual preening. Two others nibble each other’s beaks and twine their necks together, then take turns shoving their heads under one another’s stomach and pushing each other around. Another adult male gives a sub adult rival a spectacular wings-out, head-down, chest-inflated display. Off to one side a pair is courting, the male’s head flushing brilliant hues of orange and red as he struts and nods around the attentive female, occasionally cupping his outstretched wings forward and slowly pivoting in a circle. Then the two fly off together, drawing figure eights in the sky.

Romana, Koster and Polanca are not alone in trying to aid the Andean condor. In Colombia, biologists are busy reintroducing young condors hatched in North American zoos to parks and reserves. In 10 years, 48 have been released, and two years ago the first repatriated pair successfully raised a wild chick of its own. (In Venezuela, however, a similar project ended with all the released birds being shot.)

Far to the south, in Argentina, other biologists are busy turning loose condors equipped with radio transmitters so their movements in the wild can be tracked. Finding out where the birds go and how much space each pair needs in different environments remain among the most critical pieces of information affecting every rescue effort. And so saving the biggest of Earth’s creatures to take to the sky almost certainly will mean learning more about its many secrets.

On the fifth day, just before sunset, a stupendous male lands on the slope above the carcass. Head held high, shoulders squared, feet planted far apart, his entire body language speaks of dominance. I murmur to Mark, "If the Apu exists, I think I´m seeing him right now!"

For an hour the bird stands stock still. Then, with daylight fading, the Apu walks deliberately down the slope. Every condor in sight flops to the ground behind him. As the Apu leads the charge, some 40 birds march through the tall tussock grass like an advancing army. They descend on the carcass as one, hissing and thumping. For the next 20 minutes they feed in a melee of flashing black-and-white wings, the sounds of tearing hide and snapping cartilage filling the air. Then, all at once, they take off, flapping heavily away into the gathering night.

I am left with goose bumps prickling my skin and visions of prehistoric times when great hordes of scavengers fed on Pleistocene mammals, long before humankind came onto the scene.

Roving editor Tui De Roy and partner Mark Jones traveled to South America four times to report on the Andean condor.

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