Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Condor Conservation in The Andes

by Shyamala Rao

I stood at the edge of the northern shore of the beautiful Nahuel Haupi Lake in the Andes and watched the sunbeams light up the ripples over the sparkling blue water and soaked in the glorious landscape of this enormous lake ringed by Andean peaks. I saw a large bird gliding in circles over the lake. The bird was flying without so much a flap of the wings. “What is that, a hawk?” I asked. The guide said “It is an Andean Condor.” I stared at the huge bird in wonder.

This was my first glimpse of a condor in the wild, completely free and unfettered.I watched as the bird flew in circles, higher, ever higher and eventually was out of sight. Clearly this bird was not in search of food, he was flying into the heavens for sheer joy and perchance to commune with the gods. Small wonder that the Incas believed the condors were God’s messengers and that condors fetched the sun and got it to rise every morning.

We set off in the travel coach and as we turned the corner there were tall and forbidding cliffs to the left and the shimmering lake to the right. The guide said these mountains housed the nests of the condors and pointed out to a couple high up on the mountainside, where we thought we saw the birds crouching and peering into nooks, presumably occupied with feeding offspring.

The cliffs were steel grey, dotted with pink, ochre and umber. There was no vegetation anywhere in sight. The bleakness and the immense height of these nesting grounds made me shudder. Wingless and without flight as I am, the very notion of a little chick high up in a nook or cranny on the side of these mountains made me feel faint with the myriad possibilities of danger and mishaps.

The nesting grounds are between 9800 feet to 15000 feet above sea level. I was informed that the female condor lays just one egg in a recess in the cliffs. The male and female birds guard the egg tirelessly until it hatches after 54 days of incubation. Both parents share the duty of feeding the chick. In the second year the chick is taught to fly. This goes on for another year. Only then does the chick fly away to start on its own life. Mating pairs have one chick every other year.

Condors are part of the scavenger family of birds. These birds are the ‘clean up crew.’ They eat carrion which means they find dead animals and consume them. If the scavengers didn’t do this, then the carcasses would rot and fester. The smells would be overpowering. Flies and other insects would be attracted to the decaying matter and would multiply and spread diseases galore. The decomposing material would contaminate the water source and poison everyone. For some reason the scavenger birds have been associated with death in the minds of humans. This is akin to blaming the undertaker for human death. So over the centuries hunting, poisoning and killing these birds has been engaged in with utter abandon.

Andean Condors are the largest of the flying birds on the planet weighing up to 33 pounds, standing 4 feet tall with a wing span of 10 feet. Their habitat is the Andes Mountain range. They have a wattle on the forehead called a caruncle. They often fly 200 miles a day in search of food. After a good meal they can go for a week or two without food and water. This huge bird flies on warm air currents called thermals and can fly to heights of 28,000 feet. When the bird is circling it is riding the columns of thermal currents. On cloudy days when there are no thermals the condors stay grounded.

On January 19, 2010 a formal partnership was signed between the Directors of the US National Park Service and the Argentinian Administracion de Parque Nacionales. The goal is to have these majestic birds soar the skies of North and South America. These birds have an important role in the folklore of the native population in both continents. They are a symbol of power, liberty and strength. They are believed to carry the wisdom of the gods from the heavens to our earthly realm. The plan is to raise the chicks in captivity for a year and then release them into the wild in Argentina. Many more of these glorious birds will soon be gliding in the pristine skies of the Andean Mountains.

Shyamala Rao is a guest blogger on Art for Conservation. She is a wildlife artist living and working in San Antonio, Texas where she is a practicing psychiatrist. Her interest in wildlife was stimulated by a visit to the Serengeti in 2007 and since then she has been putting her feelings about animals onto canvas. She has just begun writing about conservation issues and hopes that by writing and painting she can do her part in helping conserve the glorious diversity of species on this planet.

This post was excerpted from the full article which can be found on her
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