Andean Condor: Range and Habitat

This article discusses the habitat and range of the Andean condors in the Andes Mountains. Information is presented concisely in one place. Be prepared to discover something about this magnificent bird.

  • The Andean condor range is perhaps the longest and most linear one among the birds of South America
  • The same applies for its altitudinal range encompassing the high andes and shores of the Pacific ocean
  • The Andean condor is rare in the northern part of its range but increases in number in the southern part
  • Condors forage in open habitats that have the potential to provide food
  • Roosting habitat is important to foraging condors. The lack of appropriate roosting sites may affect the condor distribution throughout its Andean range.

Where do Andean condors live?

Geographically, the Andean condor (Vultur gryphus) has a linear range. They are distributed along the Andes Mountains from Venezuela to Tierra del Fuego in Argentina. 

Andean condors also live, permanently and temporarily, in a few areas outside of the Andes Mountains, but they are always near or adjacent to the Andes.

In some areas of its range, mainly in Peru and Chile, the Andean condor descends to the coasts of the Pacific Ocean, which lies west of the Andes. Located east of the Andes, the condor ranges are part of the Sierra de Córdoba and San Luis mountain chains.

Further southeast, the Andean occurs in small numbers along the southern Atlantic coast.

The size of the Andean condor range

Andean condor range map showing approximate abundances. Condors are rare in the north and more common in the south portion of its distribution map. (Adapted from R. Wallace et al. 2020).

For the first estimation of Andean condor range, field observations of habitat use were used to estimate how much of that habitat occurs in a habitat map of the Andean mountains. Using this approach, Fjelds and Krabbe (1990) estimated that the Andean condor’s range is approximately 2,362,397 km2.

A second estimate was based on a literature review of the presence and population density of Andean condors, input from condor biologists and expert field ornithologists, as well as observations submitted to ebird and other databases. Condor biologist Robert Wallace and colleagues (2020) estimate that the current range of the Andean condor is approximately 3,230,061 square km. This estimation represents an increase of nearly 37% from the previously estimated range.

Figure showing the wide altitudinal range used by the Andean condor. Image Credits: Bionica (Adapted).

Andean condor altitudinal range

The Andean condor inhabits the widest range of altitudes. Birds can search for carcasses of wild vicuñas (Lama vicugna) and guanacos (Lama guanicoe) from heights of 5,000 m and then descend to the Pacific Ocean’s shores to feed on dead marine mammals.

Andean condors movements and short-distance migration

Andean condors are not considered migratory species because they do not perform predictable seasonal movements for an extended period from one region to another. However, it can be argued that parts of some condor populations move according to seasonal fluctuations and changes in food availability.

Despite not being strictly migratory, the Andean condor can travel daily distances of 200 km to 350 km per day (Alarcon et al. 20113), particularly when searching for food to feed their young.

A biologist studying Andean condors (Pavez 2014) fitted two adults, male and female, with satellite transmitters over a three-year period providing a general idea of Andean condor movements. The birds performed the following movements:

  • A male spent almost equal time on the western slope of the Chilean Andes (51%) and on the eastern slope of the Argentinian Andes (49%), occupying a vast territory or home range of 66,624 km2.
  • Females spent more time on the western slopes of the Chilean Andes (69%) and on the eastern slopes of the Argentinean Andes (31%), occupying an area of 14,169 km2.

Andean condor movements are affected by weather conditions

To move or migrate, the Andean condor uses both gliding and soaring as its primary flight technique. Both of these flight styles require updraft currents for effortless and low-effort flight. Conditions like these are more likely to occur in the summer over the winter and in the mornings and early afternoons daily.

Both Andean condors moved more during the summer months and covered a greater area than during the winter and spring months. 

During the morning hours, both birds studied moved more, which corresponds to warmer weather and more updraft currents. Afternoons are cooler and flying becomes more taxing for condors, causing them to move less. About 35% of the Andean condor’s day is spent in flight, which is concentrated in the morning hours.

Almost all of the movements performed by the Andean condor are related to searching for food and returning to a roosting or nesting site. As a result, they can return to the same roosting site or use a different one, depending on the location of food. The area’s geography determines the type and number of roosting sites that are available. 

How fast can an Andean condor fly during its movements?

In a study where 24 male and female Andean condors were fitted with satellite transmitters (Alarcon, et al., 2013), researchers found an Andean condor can fly up to 125 km/h when making its way between the foraging site and a nest site.

Andean Condor Habitat

As the Andean condor habitat is quite diverse, it has as a common characteristic open spaces without dense forest cover. Open spaces ranging from puna grasslands and meadows, Andean scrub, lowland scrub, semi-open deciduous forests, sandy beaches, and rocky shorelines along the Pacific coast.

The Andean condor has the widest range of altitudes of all birds. It inhabits open and semi-open habitats between 4,000 m and sea level, where carcasses of dead animals are likely to be found.  

Diverse habitat types are used by the Andean condor in different proportions in different parts of the Andes mountain range over time.

The Andean condor can be classified as habitat generalist. Any open habitat and any elevation with potential to have large carcasses constitute Andean condor habitat. The most used habitats include high mountains with deep valleys (top left), Puna grasslands (top right), sandy beaches and rock shorelines (bottom left) and open savannah and scrub (lower wight).

Andean condor habitat use

Within its range, the Andean condor uses certain habitat types more frequently than others.

Venezuela, Ecuador, and Colombia

Observations and monitoring studies in Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador have determined that the Andean condor prefers high altitude herbaceous paramo and dry Andean scrub habitats in mountainous landscapes with steep and gentle slopes.

Peru

The western Andean mountains support higher numbers of the Andean condor than adjacent mountain chains. 

In northern Peru, the Andean condor uses scrub and open and semi-open deciduous woodlands in the foothills of the western Andes below 800 m above sea level. However, it is rare or absent from the higher and more humid inter Andean valleys in the north-central region. 

In the same general region of northern Peru, the Andean condor also uses sandy beaches and rocky shorelines, particularly in areas that feature cliffs near or adjacent to the shores of the Pacific Ocean.

The Puna grasslands, Andean scrub, and agricultural land between 3,300 and 3,900 meters above sea level are the best habitats for Andean condors in Peru’s western Andes. Here, wild and domestic animals graze, and condors are more likely to find carcasses. There are also many vertical cliffs along the Western Andes where condors roost or nest. 

Chile and Argentina

As in other regions, high elevation grasslands, Andean scrub, and adjacent lowlands pampas (grasslands) are the preferred habitats of the Andean condor. Here, domestic livestock is the main component of the condor’s diet.

The Andean condor in both countries visits landfills, unlike other parts of its range. Landfills in these regions provide condors with a low-quality habitat that is readily accessible and provides supplemental food. Due mainly to the consumption of plastic and toxic foods, this habit exposes them to a variety of health and mortality risks. 

Bolivia

Bolivia’s eastern and more humid mountain chain hosts high densities of the Andean condor. They are frequently found in humid and semi-humid scrub and open woodlands. 

Andean condors in Bolivia also use the mountainous inter-Andean valleys dominated by Chaco vegetation at mid-elevations and less frequently at lower elevations. The use of the humid eastern andean mountain ranges is the contrary of what occurs in Peru, where the Andean condor is rare and absent from the humid eastern mountains.

Brasil

The Andean condor is a rare visitor to the grasslands and wetlands of Mato Grosso. Some records of Andean condors at carcasses have been recorded mainly in May.

Roosting cliff with natural cavity formations. Photo: Nicolas Calvo.

Andean condor nesting and roosting habitat

The Andean condor nests and roosts in caves, ledges, and other cavities in vertical cliffs that are inaccessible to land predators. Birds use their roosting and nesting sites as bases to access a variety of foraging areas.

Nesting and roosting habitat are important to the Andean condor’s life cycle. Condors spend the night at one or more communal roost sites when they are not breeding. When raising young, the adults must return to the nest often multiple times per day during the time chicks are very young. 

In its search for food, the Andean condor covers areas within a commuting distance of its roost site. According to some studies, the lack of cliffs available for roosting and nesting may partially explain the scarcity and even absence of the Andean condor in parts of the Andes Mountains.  

The presence of nesting and roosting cliffs depends on the local geography. The rough geography of the western Andes of Peru offers plenty of roosting sites where foraging condors can cover large areas searching for food and still find a roosting site at the same time. Parts of Argentina have few roosting sites, and the few that are available are often used by more condors than in other parts of the species’ range.

Adult condors favor roosting sites that receive early sunrise light and later sunset (autumn), as well as crevices that are sheltered from the wind. Condors compete for preferred roosting spots: Adults dominate juveniles, while males dominate females within each age class.

Roosting sites are not used at the same frequency throughout the year. Multiple-year studies of Andean condor roosting sites found that the number of individuals using the roost varied with the season. 

Seasonal changes also affect the demographics of users. During part of the year, roosting sites are primarily occupied by adults, while in other parts of the year juveniles and subadults outnumber the adults. Changes in numbers and demography can be attributed in part to the change in cattle ranching regimes.

Conclusions:

The Andean condor ranges in a long linear range along the Andes mountains. Population numbers are the smallest in the northern part of its range and the largest in the southern portion of its geographic distribution.

Condors use a variety of open habitats ranging from the high Andean mountain tops to the the sandy and rocky shoreline of the Pacific Ocean.

The Andean condor needs roosting sites in the areas where they search for food. The scarcity or absence of adequate roosting site may limit the range of the Andean condor.

References:

  • BirdLife International (2020). Vultur gryphus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2020.
  • Eduardo Pavez, 2014. Movement pattern of two Andean condors Vultur gryphus (Aves: Cathartidae) in the central Andes of Chile and Argentina. Boletín Chileno de Ornitología 20 (1-2) : 1-12 Unión de Ornitólogos de Chile 2014.
  • Fjelds˚a, J., and N. Krabbe (1990). Birds of the High Andes: A Manual to the Birds of the Temperate Zone of the Andes and Patagonia, South America. Zoological Museum, University of Copenhagen and Apollo Books, Svendborg, Denmark.
  • Medrano F, Barros R, Norambuena H V, Matus R y Schmitt F. 2018. Atlas de las aves nidificantes de Chile. Red de Observadores de Aves y Vida Silvestre de Chile. Santiago, Chile.
  • P. Alarcón, S. Lambertucci, J. M. Morales, G. Wiemeyer, O. Mastrantuoni, E. Shepard, J. A. Sánchez-Zapata, G. Blanco, M. de la Riva, F. Hiraldo y J. A. Donázar. 2013. Desde la  Patagonia Difundiendo Saberes – VOL. 10 – Nº 16 – 2013.
  • Wallace, R. B., A. Reinaga, N. Piland, R. Piana, H. Vargas, R.-E. Zegarra, P. Alarco´n, S. Alvarado, J. Alvarez, F. ´ Angulo, V. Astore, et al. (2020). Saving the Symbol of the Andes: A Range Wide Conservation Priority Setting Exercise for the Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus). Wildlife Conservation Society, La Paz, Bolivia.