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The Condor's Ecosystem

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The adage, "It's a dirty job, but someone has to do it," is useful for understanding the carrion-eating condor's ecological role. By consuming the oft-rotting meat of dead animals, these vultures help remove diseased flesh from the environment. There are two condor species, which rank as the largest terrestrial birds in North and South America, respectively: the critically endangered California condor, of which at one point there were only 22 individuals remaining, and the Andean condor.


The range of the California condor once spanned the length of the Pacific coasts of North America and Canada and even into Mexico. As a result of human activity, however, this bird -- which by 1987 was extinct in the wild -- now clings to existence in parts of southern California, Arizona and Baja California, where it has been reintroduced following a captive breeding program. The Andean condor can be found throughout its namesake South American mountain range, in parts of Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Argentina and Chile.


California condors are found in arid areas, mainly in southern California, where they have access to rocky cliffs for nesting. Andean condors, which also establish nests in cliffs, ledges and caves, occur in both inland and coastal mountain areas. Though they travel great distances and spend much of their time airborne, using their vision to detect food, condors generally return to their nests.


Both species of condor prefer to feast on the carcasses of big animals. In the case of the California species, these include cattle, deer, horses, sheep and coyote. The natural diet of Andean condors consisted of llamas, guanacos, armadillos and even fellow birds, like rheas. These days, however, they are more likely to pursue the remains of domesticated animals, like cows and sheep, and those of animals introduced for hunting purposes, including foxes and wild boars. Individuals that live in coastal regions also feed on dead whales and seals. Smaller animals are also part of condors' diets. California condors will eat rabbit and squirrel meat; both species have been known to consume dead fish.


The use of lead ammunition for sport hunting has been detrimental for Californian and Andean condors alike. When the birds consume the abandoned guts of animals shot dead by lead bullets, they become intoxicated and begin to die slowly. In the case of Californian condors, trash pollution, such bits of glass and bottle caps, has been known to cause fatal gastrointestinal obstruction in chicks. Andean condors have also been poisoned and shot by farmers who perceive them as threats to their livestock.