Before the arrival of the Spaniards, settled cultures in what is now known as Ecuador were guided by deities. The Incas believed condors were the messengers of the gods. Sociologist Dimitri Peñasco says the condor is believed to lead the dead into an upper realm, called Hanan Pacha. This realm included the sky, sun, moon, stars, planets and constellations. The condor is also said to be able to morph into human form. This has been the inspiration for many legends.
It is Ecuador’s national bird, depicted on the flag and coat of arms as a symbol of bravery and power. Andean condors are one of the largest birds, with wingspans of up to 10 feet. Females lay their eggs in steep, rocky areas to protect them from predators. They can mainly be found in five areas of the country: Antisana Eco Reserve, Cotacachi-Cayapas Eco Reserve, Zuleta in Imbabura province, the Nabón region in Azuay province and Cajas National Park.
Although condors are mainly scavengers, data from satellite tracking devices indicate that a small minority attack vulnerable animals such as calves. Condors generally return to their nests around 4pm, roosting on cliffs and rocks at around 4,000 meters where they feel protected from predators. At that altitude, they can also take advantage of updrafts of warm air to help them take off. Each condor travels around 20km a day, searching for food.
Counting condors is not an easy task. They are not all in their nests at the same time. But last September, 163 volunteers in 11 provinces identified 93 Andean condors during two days of observation, recording gender, approximate age, movements and habits. It’s now estimated that Ecuador’s total condor population is between 94 and 102, living in 70 roosts. This is roughly double the original estimate. Around 65% are adults, with 26 potential breeding pairs.
Breeding condors in captivity is not easy. Condors are usually monogamous — they choose one mate, and stay with this partner for life. A biologist said it takes about two years from the time of courtship until a chick hatches from the egg. Males and females take turns keeping the egg warm. When a condor is six months old, it’s ready to take its first flights near the nest. At nine months, it will begin accompanying its parents on longer flights.
The Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ) now has its first condor egg incubator, which will hopefully put Ecuador’s most emblematic species out of serious danger of extinction. There are only two condor couples in captivity that have produced eggs: Kawsay & Auki have had six offspring at the Quito Zoo in Guayllabamba. Two of the offspring are expected to be released soon. Inti & Ayu at Hacienda Zuleta have produced four eggs, but none have hatched.
Quito Zoo is one of the city’s many excellent day trips, including the historic/colonial quarter, the TelefériQo cable car, and the botanical gardens. Contact our Happy Gringo advisors for more info :)