Andean Condor Identification

The article discusses the most relevant features of condor identification, including size, appearance, distribution, behavior, and voice. The difference between adults and juveniles will help you identify a condor perched or flying high in the Andes of South America.

  • Adults are mostly black with white in the lower back
  • Males have a prominent comb and folded skin in the head
  • Females lack the comb and prominent folded skin
  • Males are larger than females
  • Males have brown iris (eyes) females have red iris
  • Juveniles are smoky-brown and take 8 years to attain the adult plumage
  • The Andean condor is unevenly distributed in the Andean mountains
    Female Andean Condor Photo: Juan Redhead.

Scientific Name: Vultur gryphus.

The Andean condor is mostly black with a large white lower back when the bird is standing. It has a furry white ruff at the base of its neck. Both sexes have similar plumage, but their head ornaments and caruncles are different. Males have brown eyes, a fleshy comb, a dewlap, and folded skin on the head and neck. Females lack the comb, have red eyes, and have only rudimentary folded skin on their heads.

Andean condor identification

The Andean condor is easy to identify. They are enormous birds larger than any other in their range. When standing or flying, they are unlike any other bird. 

Andean condors stand upright compared to other vultures, typically keeping their head raised above their backs. 

Unlike other vultures, the Andean condor is sexually dimorphic, which means that each sex has gender-specific characteristics that facilitate visual sex identification.

The most noticeable difference between males and females is the presence of a comb or carbuncle only in males. The male also has prominent folded skin and dewlap in the head and neck, which are all missing or are rudimentary in females.

Adult male

  • Prominent comb
  • Folded skin and dewlap that grows in size and becomes more wrinkled with age
  • Brown iris (eyes)
    Photo: Eduardo Pavez

Adult female

  • Lacks the comb
  • Folded skin on head and neck is rudimentary
  • The iris red
  • Females are smaller than males
    Photo: Eduardo Pavez

Size of the Andean condor 

In its range, the Andean condor is by far the largest bird. It is about 80% larger than the next largest bird in most of its range. 

Andean condors, including males and females, weigh approximately 11 kilograms on average. The next large bird is the black-chested buzzard eagle (Geranoaetus melanoleucus), which weighs 2.1 kg on average.  

In contrast to most birds of prey, the Andean condor’s male is bigger than its female in all measures.

Based on available body mass data, male Andean condors are approximately 28% larger than females.

Andean condor measures of length, weight, and wingspan are as follows:

Length (1)Weight Wingspan (2)
39.3-51.2 inch (male and female)22-33 lb (male)
18-22 kg (female)
108-122 inch
(Male and female)   

(1) Measured from the tip of the tail to the tip of the beak with the neck stretched.
(2) Distance between the spread wingtips.

The plumage of the Andean condor 

Adult male and female Andean condors have a similar black and white plumage. The Breast, belly, and tail are all black. The upperparts, composed of the back and folded wings, are black and white. 

The white lower half comprises secondary wing coverts and secondary wing feathers. The secondary flight feathers are white only on the upper side and black on the underside, so when viewed from below, the bird appears black.

Both sexes have a white furry ruff at the base of the neck.

What does an adult Andean condor look like standing?

Male and female Andean condors standing. Males are larger than females. Photo: Christian Valencia.

Perched and relaxed, the adult Andean condor has a typical upright stance. Depending on the bird’s position, it can appear mostly black or black and white if the bird is looking away from the observer. The white ruff on the neck has a furry appearance and can be seen from a long distance.

Bare parts of the Andean condor

  • The head and neck: Males have a prominent reddish-gray comb, also called a carbuncle. The bare neck has hues of gray-reddish and yellowish.

    Males have a gray dewlap and distinctive rows of folded skin starting near the eye and running down along the back and sides of the neck. The comb, dewlap, and folded skin become more prominent and wrinkled with age.

    The color of the neck and head will change according to the bird’s health status during aggressive interactions and during courtship displays. Their bare necks and heads turn sulfur yellow during courtship displays and mating.

    Adult females do not have a comb. The bare head is covered in dark bristles. The female has a rudimentary dewlap and folds of skin from the eye down the side of the neck. The lower part of the neck is reddish-gray. 
  • The beak in both sexes is hooked and bicolored with a black base and white outer two-thirds.
  • Legs and feet: Both sexes have light gray legs and feet. The legs may appear whitish when the Andean condor defecates on its legs to release excessive heat.
  • Iris color: Adult males have a light brown iris whereas adult females have a red iris.

What does an adult Andean condor look like in the air?

Adult Andean condors in flight. Photo: Juan Redhead.

From below, adult Andean condors appear black. Their secondary flight feathers are white only on the upper side. The white wings of a bird are only visible in flight when it flies below eye level or when it makes a turn, exposing its upperparts. Their white ruff can be seen even from a distance.

The plumage of young Andean condors

The juvenile and second-year Andean condors have smoky brown plumage. During the next 8 years, a juvenile condor undergoes continuous molting. Each molt results in a plumage that approaches the colors of the adult.

Juvenile males and female Andean condors. Photos: Walter Bailiero, Carlos Barrena.

Juvenile Andean condors have a smoky-brown plumage when they leave the nest. Subsequent molts will result in plumages that resemble that of the adult, which is attained in 8 years.

The head, neck, and beak of juvenile Andean condors are blackish. Juvenile males can be distinguished from females by having a comb from the moment of hatching.

Behavior

Condors are usually seen flying alone high in the sky or cruising near the top of the mountains. It is also possible to see Andean condors when they congregate at carcasses with caracaras, vultures, and other Andean scavengers.

Condors rest on vertical cliff ledges where they return every evening. Roosting sites are scattered in the Andes but knowing the location of one ensures that juvenile, sub-adult, and adult condors are likely to be seen when they leave in the morning and when they return in the afternoon. 

Condors take flight when warm air currents form updrafts. This happens between 3 and 4 hours after sunrise in the Andes. 

The Andean condor is a master of the sky. The bird can soar and glide for hours without flapping its wings. Taking advantage of the updraft currents, they can cover huge areas in search of food without spending much energy.

In the early morning hours, Andean condors often perch with their wings spread, sunning themselves. The adults and juvenile condors probably do this to dry their plumage after a foggy night, to warm up after a freezing high altitude Andean night, and simply enjoy the warm sun on their bodies.

The habitat of the Andean Condor

Condors prefer open grasslands and the mountains that surround inter-Andean valleys. Here, wild and domestic large mammals graze, and carcasses are more likely to be found. The Paramo ecosystem and Andean scrub are also used, but forest areas are avoided.

Andean condors may live in habitats up to 16,000 ft in altitude, but they are relatively adaptable when it comes to elevation changes. As long as carcasses are available, it descends into inter-Andean valleys, savannah ecosystems, open grasslands, and semi-open deciduous forests. 

Potential foraging habitats of the Andean condor may be under-used due to the absence of roosting and breeding cliffs. An Andean condor typically returns to roosts on cliffs every night. The absence of the Andean condor in some regions of its range may be explained by the lack of suitable cliffs for nesting and roosting within commuting distance. 

Condors may visit the coastal lowlands more frequently, where they can commute between their roosting sites in the adjacent Andean mountains and the coastal areas.

Range of the Andean condor 

Condor ranges along the Andes Mountains, from Venezuela to Tierra del Fuego. Although it occurs regularly in parts of its range, it is rare or even absent in others.

There is a correlation between its distribution and the presence of mountain ranges with vertical cliffs on which it nests and roosts.

There are more Andean condors in Peru’s central and western mountains than in its eastern part.

Aside from the Andes, the Andean condor inhabits the San Luis and Cordoba mountain ranges and the coastal lowlands of the southern Atlantic coast of Argentina.

Adult male Andean condor flying next to a black vulture (Caragyps atratus). Notice the difference in size and wingspan.

Birds that look like an Andean Condor

Some vultures and hawks look like Andean condors. However, in terms of size, there is no bird in the condor’s range that comes close. 

Several birds with similar appearances and behaviors overlap with the Andean condor.

Below 1600 m of altitude, the Andean condor is likely to be found in the company of the following bird species:

SpeciesWeightHeight
(Standing)
Wingspan
Andean Condor11-15 (male)
8-11 (female) kg
111 cm290 cm
King vulture3 to 4.5 kg72.5 cm185 cm
Turkey vulture1.1 to 2.1 kg65 cm171 cm
Black vulture1.5 – 2.2 kg62.5 cm146.5 cm
Crested Caracara1.1 to 1.6 kg51.5 cm110 cm

Above approximately 1600 m of altitude, the Andean condor is likely to be found in the company of the following bird species::

SpeciesWeightHeight
(Standing)
Wingspan
Andean Condor11-15 (male)
8-11 (female) kg
111 cm290 cm
Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle2.1 kg68 cm166.5 cm
Variable Hawk0.98 kg53 cm132 cm
Mountain caracara0.79 kg52.5 cm117.5 cm

Voices of the Andean Condor

The Andean condor lacks the “sound chamber” in their syrinx, which helps produce sound in songbirds. Therefore, its voice is limited to guttural sounds. 

Andean condors make guttural clucks in a staccato rhythm. In a zoo, male condors produced staccato clucks during courtship displays. The series last as long as the male displays to a female with its wings spread.

Andean condors also produce exhalation hisses and raspy calls. In a captive breeding facility, a female Andean condor gave staccato clucks interspersed with exhalation hisses as she protected her nest with an egg.

When adult Andean condors interact with each other in captive breeding facilities, they make clucking calls.

 

Voices of the Andean condor

Staccato clucks, exhaling hisses, and raspy calls given by seemingly two Andean condors in captive conditions. Recording by: Bernabe Lopez-lanus (Xeno-canto).

A female gives staccato clucks in captive conditions. Recording by: Fernando Castro (Xeno-canto).