Andean Condor Food Habits

Andean condors feed primarily on carrion. Using its keen eyesight, it soars and glides over vast regions in search of food. The Andean condor is always the dominant scavenger over birds and mammals when scavengers gather at a carcass.

  • The Andean condor is a carrion feeder
  • It forages for food alone, covering huge areas
  • The Andean condor relies primarily on its keen eyesight
  • It has a limited sense of smell
  • Domestic livestock constitute most of its diet
  • The Andean condor feeds on large and small carcasses
  • It is the strongest and dominant scavenger in its range
    Bird with a crop full of food. Photo: Eduardo Pavez.

What does the Andean condor eat?

Andean condors feed almost exclusively on carrion. Formerly, it consumed large wild ungulates such as guanacos (Lama guanicoe), vicunas (Vicugna vicugna), llamas (Lama glama) and taruca deer (Hippocamelus antisensis). 

Populations of guanacos and taruca deer still remain wild, while the other large ungulates have been domesticated. 

The Andean condor now feeds on carcasses of the highly reduced populations of guanacos, taruca deer, and domesticated livestock such as llamas, vicunas, cows, and sheep. 

Some Andean condors move downwards from the high Andes to the Pacific coastline and small coastal islands, where they feast on dead marine animals. Their diet in the coastal lowlands includes the carcasses of dolphins, sharks, seals, sea turtles, and whales. During times of scarcity, they eat almost anything that washes up on the coast.

Subadult Andean condor on a rocky shore with the Pacific Ocean in the background. Photo: Victor Bustinza.

Timing of the Andean condor’s appearance on the Pacific coast in search of food

Andean condors migrate to the coastal lowlands when food is abundant.

South American sea lions (Otaria flavescens) and South American fur seals (Arctocephalus australis) return to the coast to give birth in October through December. Andean condors also migrate to the coastal lowlands from October through December to feed on the afterbirths of female seals giving birth and pups that die after birth.

During the period between December and March, seabirds breed along the central Pacific coast. Condors have been observed stealing eggs and young chicks from colonies of nesting seabirds.

The Andean condor attacks and kills weak or dying newborn calves when the opportunity arises. They can do the same with young and adult seabirds.

Where does the Andean Condor find food?

The Andean condor feeds mainly in the high Andean mountain range and prefers open habitats. However, if food is not found at high elevations, it can travel great distances (over 125 miles per day), descending to valleys and foothills. In part of its range, the Andean condor migrates down to sea level, searching for carcasses of marine animals.  

Depending on where they roost and nest, Andean condors may cover specific habitats and areas searching for food. Condors return to roost sites at the end of each day. The distance from the roost to their foraging grounds needs to be such that it allows them to return to their roosting sites with daylight. 

Alternatively, foraging birds can use multiple known roost sites and cover longer distances without returning to the same roost site.

There is no estimate of the number of Andean condors that descend to the coast in search of food. Generally, relatively low numbers of birds are observed in coastal areas, suggesting that only part of the population regularly descends to sea level.

Andean condors explore huge areas, including deep valleys and open grasslands in search of food. Photo: Geraldo Carpio.

How does the Andean condor find dead animals?

The Andean condor searches for food using its keen eyesight to find a carcass on the ground. They also find food by observing the activity of other scavengers, birds, and mammals. 

Foraging condors can cover extensive areas using thermal updrafts and wind currents without flapping their wings as they scan the ground for dead animals. 

Also, Andean condors monitor the activities of caracaras, small vultures, hawks, and even foxes gathered at a carcass or coming to or leaving one.

Once a condor finds a carcass, it adopts a stereotyped behavior to approach it. The Andean acts overly cautious when it is time to descend to the corpse, particularly when it is the first scavenger to approach the carcass.

It does not go directly to it but waits a couple of days while it flies high over the carcass, monitoring the area’s activity. 

This overly cautious behavior may be a result of the condor’s need to ensure that the area is safe to feed. Alternatively, the bird simply waits for the meat’s decomposition to be long enough for it to be able to rip the skin and access the carcass’ interior.

Can the Andean condor smell dead animals? 

The Andean condor’s ability to locate a carcass using its sense of smell is debatable. It is assumed that it locates its food using its keen eyesight and that it does not have or has a limited sense of smell.

Observations in the field reveal that Andean condors arrive first at not readily visible carcasses. The ability to find and arrive at a carcass suggests that the Andean condor must have some sense of smell. 

The presumed limited sense of smell of the Andean condor may not be near as good as that of a cathartic vulture such as the turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), but in the thin air of the high Andes, some ability to smell may be all an Anden condor needs to locate dead animals. 

Interestingly, turkey vultures, known to have an amazing sense of smell, or any other species of vulture, do not occur in the high Andes. Hence the Andean condor relies on its good-enough sense of smell and keen sight to locate carcasses.

The Andean condor does not depend on the sense of smell of other avian scavengers in the high Andes because none of them has a highly developed sense of smell. Except for foxes, avian scavengers in the high Andes locate their carcasses by sight and by the activities of other scavengers.

The Andean condor does not require a highly developed sense of smell to find food in coastal areas. The carcasses are found along sandy beaches and rocky shorelines in open areas that are easy to spot.

Also, the presence of turkey and black vultures that find carcasses and congregate around them makes it easy for a flying condor to find them.

Adult and immature Andean condors eat the carcass of a sheep at 11,500 feet above sea level.

What type of carcasses does the Andean Condor include in its diet?

In present times, the diet of the Andean Condor varies regionally. In part of its range, herds of wild ungulates are nonexistent, and carcasses of cows, donkeys, horses, goats, sheep, pigs, and smaller livestock constitute the main components of its diet.

The Andean condor appears not to have a particular preference for a type or size of carcass. More condors attend large carcasses partly because a large carcass provides food for several consecutive days. The Andean condor eats what is available at the moment, seemingly regardless of the type and size of the carcass.

In Peru, Bolivian, Chile, and Argentina, carcasses of domestic livestock and wild guanacos are the main food items in the diet of the Andean Condor. Large birds and mammals of any size are readily consumed. 

The diet of the Andean condors also includes the afterbirths and carcasses of South American sea lions and fur seals, dolphins, sea turtles, large fish, whales, and just about anything that washes up along regions of the Pacific shoreline where the Andean condor is known to descend from the Andes. Opportunistically, it also takes seabird eggs and nestlings. 

Condors eat both light and heavy carcasses. Lambertucci and collaborators (2009) study of condors in Argentina determined that their diets are dominated by non-native species (98.5%). 

In this study, cattle ranching operations and farmland were dominant in the area. The type and size of carcasses eaten by the Andean condor are as follows:

Food typePercentage (%)Range of weights
Sheep and goats 51~50 – 350 lb
Hares and Rabbits24~3 -10 lb
Red deer17~440 lb
Cattle and Horses 6~660 – 2,000 lb
Small mammals (foxes and others)2~14 lb

Is the Andean condor the most dominant scavenger in its range?

The Andean condor is the dominant scavenger over other avian and mammal scavengers in most of its range. Whether it arrives at the carcass first or last, it gets immediate access to the carcass. 

Depending on the region, the Andean condor drives away foxes, caracaras, hawks, turkey, and black vultures with only its sheer presence. 

Upon approaching a carcass with other scavengers already present, the condor spreads its wing and stretches its neck emitting hoarse croaking sounds as it advances to the carcass. Once the Andean condor is on the carcass, other scavengers wait nearby until it is done eating. Scavengers approaching the carcass risk being pecked by the Andean Condor.

Smaller scavengers depend on the Andean condor to open up carcasses

Small scavengers depend on the Andean condor’s powerful beak and overall strength to open up a carcass and gain access to the contents inside the thick skin. Small scavengers can handle small carcasses, but their access to the inside of the carcass of large mammals with thick skin is limited.

Andean condors can rip the thick belly skin of large mammals and then pull and consume their internal organs, guts, and muscles. Smaller scavengers can eventually reach the contents of the carcass after the condor has filled up its crop and leaves or stands by away from the carcass. 

One to thirty Andean condors can feed on a single large carcass. Even with many condors present, field observation suggests that smaller scavengers prefer carcasses with condors already present, which means they will obtain a meal faster than those without condors.

Studies have also found that when the Andean condor opens up a carcass, mammal scavengers such as pumas and foxes spend less time handling it and gain quicker access to its contents.

Pumas were able to dedicate more time to hunting more prey because they spent less time at the carcass. More prey hunted also benefits scavengers such as the Andean condor.

What time of day does the Andean condor look for food and feed?

The Andean condor looks for food when flying is the most energy-efficient. This means using thermal updrafts to easily take off from their roosting sites and soar and glide for hours without flapping their wings.

In the high Andes, thermal updrafts begin to form when the air heats up, usually shortly after sunrise. Updrafts that soaring birds use begin about anywhere from three to four hours after sunrise. 

The Andean condor begins to leave its roosting site in search of food at around 9:00 AM. In general, condors tend to feed during mid to late morning, extending their feeding time into the mid-afternoon. Timing can vary according to daily and seasonal variations in weather conditions. 

On rainy and overcast days, the Andean condor stays in their roosting or nesting places as there are no thermal updrafts to aid with efficient flight. 

Roosting places serve as an information center as birds that did not find food follow those that were successful at finding food the day before to the carcass. 

A female Andean condor showing its bare neck and head adapted to tunnel into a carcass to tear pieces of meat, maintaining them clean. Photo: Miguel Pastor.

Morphological and behavioral feeding adaptation of the Andean condor 

The Andean condor has evolved several foraging and feeding adaptations, making it a superb scavenger. 

  • Condors have broad and long wings with specialized primary and secondary feathers. An Andean condor can soar and glide for hours without flapping its wings, requiring little energy.
  • A bare neck and head to ensure that blood and other fluids that attach to the bird as it reaches deep into a carcass quickly dry and falls off, maintaining these parts clean and free from harmful bacteria. 
  • A very strong and hooked bill and wide skull enable the Andean condor to rip and tear the thick skin of the large mammals they regularly feed on.
  • Excellent eyesight and “a limited” sense of smell (read above) allow the Andean condor to find carcasses not readily visible. 
  • An expandable crop allows the Andean condor to eat and store from 9 to 11 lb a day. While stored food in their crops can last for a few days, an Andean condor can withstand more than five weeks without eating.

Do Andean condors search for food and feed alone or in flocks? 

Andean condors search for food alone. They fly over extensive areas that other condors may also explore. 

Up to 40 individual condors have been recorded at a large carcass. The condors form temporary feeding flocks that break apart once the corpse is consumed.

It is likely that the Andean condor, like other vultures, use their roost sites as information centers. Successful condors departing to their carcass are followed by individuals that did not find one the day before. 

Do Andean condors kill and carry the animals they eat?

Andean condors are primarily carrion feeders. They are physically unable to grab things with their feed the way hawks and falcons do. Allegations that the Andean condor can attack and carry chickens, dogs, newborn sheep, goats, and even small children are false and misleading; it is physically impossible.

Andean condor can regularly attack small and wounded animals using its beak and pressing down the prey with its feet. 

Andean condors are perceived as a threat to livestock, which has resulted in relentless prosecution. Condors are shot and poisoned to prevent them from taking newborn livestock.

Hungry Andean condors do indeed approach cows and other livestock when a mother is giving birth to consume the afterbirths. A flock of hungry condors can eat the placenta and continue pulling the newborn’s umbilical cord, compromising it that the newborn can eventually die.

It appears that condors in certain regions of their range have developed this method to procure food and use it regularly. These condors are not necessarily hungry but use it as a way to obtain food.

For more about whether the Andean Condor can kill live animals, visit this article. 

Why don’t Andean condor get sick from eating rotten meat?

Like other vultures in the Americas, the Andean condor has developed dual physiological fronts to combat harmful bacteria in the food they eat, including:

  1. They neutralize harmful bacteria in their stomachs by using very strong gastric acids and
  2. An immune system that is capable of fighting off harmful bacteria.

A study of the gut contents of turkey vultures and king vultures, which also consume rotten meat from dead animals, revealed that their stomach acids are very strong and capable of breaking even the DNA of the meat they consume. Strong gastric acids easily kill harmful bacteria.