By Robert S. Mulvihill, ornithologist, National Aviary
It soars on gigantic wings that span more than 10 feet, effortlessly supporting its 25-30 pound bulk. By any measure, the Andean condor is one of the largest flying birds on Earth. It is so large that despite its impressive wing size, gorging on several pounds of carrion at one time can render it temporarily flightless, until some of what it has ingested can be digested! It is beautifully adapted for soaring flight, but it has relatively small flight muscles for generating the forces needed to lift off from the ground.
The survival of this grand species, which the fossil record indicates has existed on Earth for some 3 million years, is by no means guaranteed. There are estimated to be fewer than 10,000 wild Andean condors, and the species is considered "Near Threatened" due to continuing population declines.
Condors are very long-lived -- achieving a maximum age of about 50 years in the wild and 80 years in captivity -- but they lay just one or two eggs every other year and do not breed until they are at least 7 years old.
Threats to Andean condors are manifold: loss of habitat; persecution by people not well-educated about the important ecological role this species plays as a scavenger; lead poisoning from feeding on the remains of animals killed by hunters; finally, secondary poisoning from a host of herbicides and pesticides that bio-accumulate up the food chain. As a dominant scavenger, the condor sits at the very top of many food chains. As such it literally embodies the health of the vast Andean Mountain region (an area of more than 21/2 million square kilometers) and all of its component ecosystems.
The National Aviary is taking many steps to increase its participation as a partner in ongoing international efforts to ensure the survival of this keystone species.
For many years the aviary had a productive breeding pair of Andean condors who produced chicks, later released into the wild in Colombia. Recently, a male and a female condor were acquired by the National Aviary from separate zoos in Texas, and we're also pursuing a new potential mate for our widowed female condor. The new condor pair is getting to know one another in separate but adjacent outdoor enclosures in our outdoor Condor Court exhibit. We say, let the condor courting begin!
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