The Andean condor is a large black vulture with a ruff of white feathers surrounding the base of the neck and, especially in the male, large white patches on the wings. The head and neck are nearly featherless and are a dull red color, which may flush and therefore change color in response to the bird's emotional state. In the male, there is a wattle on the neck and a large, dark red comb or caruncle on the crown of the head. The female condor is smaller than the male, which is an exception to the rule among birds of prey.
Andean condors are found in South America in the Andes including the Santa Marta Mountains. In the north, their range begins in Venezuela and Colombia, where they are extremely rare, then continues south along the Andes in Ecuador, Peru, and Chile, through Bolivia and western Argentina to the Tierra del Fuego. Andean condors live mainly in open grasslands and alpine areas. These birds prefer relatively open, non-forested areas that allow them to spot carrion from the air. They may occasionally occur in lowlands, desert areas, and over southern-beech forests.
Andean condors are active during the day spending most of their time soaring and often travel more than 200 km (120 mi) a day in search of carrion. These birds are mainly scavengers but may also prey on small, live animals, which (given their lack of powerful, grasping feet or developed hunting technique) they usually kill by jabbing repeatedly with their bill. Andean condors also spend a considerable amount of time sunning themselves with spread wings. They sun to stay warm and to maintain their feathers healthy. Outside of the breeding season Andean condors spend time in groups and roost communally on cliffs and rocky outcrops. There is a well-developed social structure within each group of condors, with competition to determine a 'pecking order' by body language, competitive play behavior, and vocalizations. Generally, mature males are usually at the top of the pecking order and post-dispersal immature males tend to be near the bottom.
Andean condors are scavengers and feed mainly on carrion preferring large carcasses. However, they will also raid the nests of smaller birds to feed on the eggs and have been observed to do some hunting of small, live animals, such as rodents, birds, and rabbits.
Andean condors are monogamous and form pairs that mate for life. During courtship displays, the skin of the male's neck flushes, changing from dull red to bright yellow, and inflates. He approaches the female with neck outstretched, revealing the inflated neck and the chest patch, while hissing, then extends his wings and stands erect while clicking his tongue. Other courtship rituals include hissing and clucking while hopping with wings partially spread, and dancing. Andean condors prefer to nest on inaccessible ledges of rock. However, in coastal areas of Peru, where there are few cliffs, some nests are simply partially shaded crannies scraped out against boulders on slopes. The female deposits 1 or 2 bluish-white eggs during the months of February and March every second year. The egg hatches after 54 to 58 days of incubation by both parents. If the chick or egg is lost or removed, another egg is laid to take its place. The young hatch altricial and covered with a grayish down. They are able to fly after 6 months but continue to roost and hunt with their parents until age 2 when they are displaced by a new clutch. Reproductive maturity and breeding behavior do not appear in the Andean condor until the bird is 5 or 6 years old.
The main threats to the Andean condor population include loss of habitat needed for foraging, secondary poisoning from animals killed by hunters, and persecution. Because this graceful bird of prey is adapted to very low mortality and has correspondingly low reproductive rates, it is extremely vulnerable to human persecution, mainly because the Andean condor is perceived as a threat by farmers due to alleged attacks on livestock. In some countries of their range, these birds are occasionally shot, but more often revered and used for ceremonial purposes.
According to the IUCN Red List, the total population size of the Andean condor is 10,000 individuals, which equates to 6,700 mature individuals. Currently, this species is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List and its numbers today are decreasing.
As carrion-feeders, Andean condors play an important role in their ecosystem by disposing of carrion which would otherwise be a breeding ground for disease.