Andean Condors (Vultur gryphus)

February 9, 2009 by  
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Oftentimes when people think of vultures they think of an ugly, onimous bird, gloomily waiting around for the death of other creatures, a nightmarish bird. However, vultures play a vital role in our ecosystems and are certainly nothing to fear as they clean-up the landscape.

Andean Condors (Vultur gryphus), part of the vulture family, are the largest flying birds on the Earth. Originally they could be seen in the skies of Tierra del Fuego right along the South American Andes mountain range. Sadly, hunting led to a reduction in numbers and Andean Condors teetered on the brink of extinction. In 1973 the Andean Condor bird species was marked on the Endangered Species list. For many years South American’s have seen the powerful, huge Andean Condor as a symbol of health and strength. Villagers have sought the bones and organs of this fine creature for medicinal purposes and thus they were, and continue to be, subject to hunting. Habitat loss as well as air, water and food pollution have also led to a drastic reduction in the numbers of Andean Condors. Fortunately, though, various organizations have been involved in the conservation of this remarkable bird species, resulting in improved numbers of Andean Condors in certain localities.

As the world’s largest flying bird, the Andean Condor weighs between 9 and 12 kgs, or 20 to 30 pounds as an adult. Their impressive wingspan extends 10 feet or 3 meters assisting them to stay aloft for hours on rising air currents. Andean Condors are black, their wings are patched with white and they have a white ruff around the area of the neck. They have bare heads and the males are recognized by their fleshy comb. Wild Andean Condors can live to the age of 50 years, whilst captive birds have been known to live to about 75 years.

Condors mate for life, and their nests are carefully constructed on cliff ledges, with eggs are often being laid on bare rock. In fact, this is a great locality for a nest as it affords a measure of protection from potential predators. Andean Condors are slow breeders and mating typically takes place every second year in July depending on food availability. The courtship display involves unusual hissing and clucking noises accompanied by the male strutting with his wings out. Incubation of the single egg lasts 54 to 58 days. Both of the condors will care for the young one until its second year.

Andean Condors spend much of their day soaring on the updrafts of warm air currents. They forage over a vast area relying on their outstanding vision to spot their main food source – carrion. Once a meal has been spotted they will descend to feed with other carrion eaters such as the Turkey Vulture, Black Vulture and King Vulture. Interestingly Andean Condors have an eating hierarchy with males of all ages dominating. Their bald head is perfectly adapted for dining on carrion as the bird is able to reach right into the carcass without feathers becoming soiled. Andean Condors will also feed on bird eggs and newborn animals should it be necessary.

Andean Condors are a truly remarkable bird species worthy of conservation efforts and very important for the continued functioning of South American ecosystems.

Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)

February 9, 2009 by  
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The Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) is a very large bird at a length of 25 inches and a 72 inch wingspan. These broad wings allow the vulture to soar in the skies for great lengths of time. At intervals, the vulture will flap its wings slowly and then continue to soar. Both the males and females are similar in appearance, with the females generally larger than the males. They have bills that are of average length and are hooked at the tip. Their heads are red in color and have no plumage, with short red legs and are predominantly dark brown to black in color. Even though this scavenger of the sky is not much to look at, it is their graceful flight ability that attracts us to this species, as many of the practiced adult vultures rarely need to flap their wings, instead they are able to ride the wind elegantly while searching larges areas for food.

Turkey Vultures are commonly found throughout Northern America and Canada, and have also been sighted in South and Central America. These vultures are usually solitary hunters, and prefer rocky cliffs, open ranges, open forest areas, and can also be seen at near agricultural regions at times. The coastal shores will also be searched for any washed up fish or dead seals. But mostly they will feed on domestic and wild carrion, and eating takes place on the ground, as their claws are too weak to carry their food to another location. Vultures will often fly close to ground, as they use their sense of smell to pick up blood and other odors that can lead them to the dead animal. This ability to process smell makes it possible for the Turkey Vulture to locate food under the forest canopies. They will  only eat dead animals and contrary to popular belief, circling vultures do not necessarily mean that there is a dead animal. Vultures often circle the skies during play, to gain altitude and to search for their food.

Turkey Vultures will either nest on the ground or in caves. Nests are not built or constructed, but hollows are dug into the ground or in the cave soil. Vultures that live near agricultural lands will often use sheds or barns to offer protection to their nest. The female vulture can lay one to three eggs, but most commonly lays two. Both the male and female vultures will care for the eggs during the incubation period that can last for 38 to 41 days. Parents will feed the chicks regurgitated food, and chicks will fledge the nest between 70 to 80 days after hatching.

Birds of Prey

February 9, 2009 by  
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Birds of prey, or raptors, are birds which hunt other animals for food and are specially adapted to do so. Birds of prey include eagles, condors, kites, falcons, hawks, osprey, owls, vultures, buzzards and secretary birds.

When hunting, birds of prey use their highly adapted feet and talons to capture and kill prey. Hawks and owls will grab prey from the ground and then kill it by crushing it in their feet. Falcons use speed to effectively kill prey by plummeting down from high up and striking with its feet. Peregrine falcons reach speeds of up to 90 mph/145kph

Birds of prey are carnivorous and gain certain nutrients from the stomach contents of their prey. The entire prey animal is devoured by the bird of prey and later pellets of undigested matter are regurgitated. Falcons have a nook (notch) on their upper bill to break the neck of prey. Vultures have especially large, strong beaks to rip through hide and break bones.

Birds of prey have a highly developed sense of sight, far better than our own, and females are larger than the males (except for vultures and secretary birds) as they need to defend their nestlings.

The heaviest bird of prey is the Andean condor, it weighs in at 27 pounds (12 kg) which is a lot to carry in flight. The largest, however, are the eagles and vultures with wingspans of about 10 feet (3m). The most powerful bird of prey is the Harpy Eagle. The Harpy Eagle’s wingspan is 6.5 feet (2m) and their talons can be as long as 5 inches (12.5cm).

To truly experience birds of prey why not visit a local rehabilitation center and view them up close. Many places offer falconry demonstrations where you can see these wonderful birds in action. If you are interested in finding out what birds of prey are in your area consult a region specific field guide.

Any opportunity to see birds of prey in action will be an awe-inspiring and unforgettable experience.

Do birds have a sense of smell?

July 3, 2006 by  
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Perhaps you’ve heard this old-wives’ tale: “if you touch a baby bird, its parents will reject it because it smells like humans”. This tale isn’t true, because birds have a very poor sense of smell. They rely instead on good eyesight and hearing to find their food.

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