Two species of condor live in the United States – California and Andean – and both rank among the world’s largest birds of prey. But just what do these giant vultures eat to satisfy their dietary needs and where do they find the food they need to survive? Below, we explore just what is on the daily menu of choice of these exceptionally rare birds.
Condors are scavengers, relying on meat from the carcasses of dead wild animals they come across in their rocky scrubland habitats. They can travel more than a hundred miles a day, scanning the landscape below for the bodies of dead mammals to feast on.
Condors rely on their razor-sharp eyesight to find food, and will circle a potential feeding site, watching other scavengers before swooping to the ground themselves. They pick through an entire corpse of an animal, eating flesh, soft tissue, organs, and bones.
Unlike other birds of prey, it is highly unusual for condors to catch live prey, and only on the rarest occasions will Andean condors feed on anything other than the meat of already-dead animals.
Join us, as we investigate the kind of dead animals that are top of the list for a condor’s feast, and how often these immense scavengers need to feed to sustain their energy levels.
Condors are opportunist scavengers
Condors are scavengers, opportunistically feeding on the flesh and bones from dead bodies of medium and large mammals they come across in the wild.
California condors’ primary and preferred sources of food are the carcasses of large mammals, such as deer, cattle, horses, bears, sheep, donkeys, and cougars. Fresh carcasses are thought to be preferred, although decomposing animals are also eaten.
An Andean Condor in flight
California condors do not eat birds. Their diet consists of large mammals, and very occasionally, in coastal regions, marine mammals and fish. Andean condors have been observed to hunt for small birds, as well as raiding the easily accessible nests of seabirds for their chicks and eggs.
California condors need to eat around 5-7 percent of their body weight every day. However, they have a large crop in their esophagus, which can carry up to 1.4 kg (3 lb) of food, meaning they can go for up to a week or more without needing to eat.
Condors weighing around 14 kg (30 lb) can eat up to almost 4.5 kg (10 lb) of food in one go, and still manage to fly off afterwards. But on occasions, condors can end up overeating, which affects their ability to fly and they will need to rest until their food has been digested.
Perched California Condor, Grand Canyon Park
California condors are skilled and patient scavengers, capable of flying over a hundred miles in search of food. Unlike vultures, which use their sense of smell to find food, condors rely solely on their ultra-keen eyesight to scan the ground below for animal carcasses and signs of decomposing carrion.
Condors can spot a suitable carcass from several hundred feet in the air, often drawn to a spot by other scavengers already on the ground. They then circle overhead for some time, casing the joint before eventually descending to feed.
California condors do not technically catch prey, as the animals they feed on are already dead and often decomposing by the time they swoop in for their feast.
Andean condors only occasionally catch live prey, when they cannot find animal carcasses. As they only have short, rounded claws and they lack powerful grasping feet, they are not built for catching prey in the way that most raptors are. Instead, they will chase and grab live prey, such as rabbits and marmots. Once caught, Andean condors stand on their prey and tear at it with their sharp beaks until it dies.
A California Condor soaring above in search of food, Arizona
California condors feed exclusively on carrion, and do not hunt live prey.
If Andean condors are unable to find animal carcasses to feed on, they may resort to catching live prey, including smaller birds, rabbits, and rodents. They will use their sharp beaks to jab their catch until it dies, but start eating it while it is still alive.
Condors spend a large proportion of their day in flight, scanning the landscape below for a feeding site to descend to. They are airborne for 7 to 8 hours a day in summer months, and 5 to 6 hours each day in winter, and will feed when the opportunity arises, rather than at one set time of day.
Andean Condor soaring through the sky
Condors need to eat more in winter, due to an increased demand on energy levels needed to regulate body temperature. Their diet is the same all year round, scavenging on whatever carcasses they spot on the landscape below. However, in winter, due to shorter daylight hours, condors may not have the same opportunities to feed as much or as often as in the summer months.
In summer, California condors continue to rely on finding the bodies of dead animals for food. They will fly for up to 8 hours each day in summer months, sometimes covering over 100 miles while scanning the landscape below for a source of fresh or decomposing flesh.
Close up of a California Condor feeding on a calf
Baby condors are fed regurgitated food by both parents, who take turns to attend the nest and continue to provide food until the immature birds long after the first fledge at around 6 months. Young condors remain with their parents until around 2 years; during this time they gradually master the arts of foraging and scavenging for themselves.
In captivity, condors are fed a range of foods, including rabbits, rats, trout, and beef spleen, and are not fed every day, so as to mirror the birds’ feeding habits in their natural environment.
Any attempts to attract and feed condors in the wild are highly discouraged and unlikely to be successful, as these giant scavengers are very particular about what they eat, and where they find it.
Close up portrait of an Andean Condor
Condors drink water and only water. They regularly drink after eating, sourcing water from pools in rocky surfaces, cattle troughs, and from ledges next to waterfalls.
Condors are attracted to areas with abundant food sources, such as farmland where there have been outbreaks of disease among livestock. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll attract a condor to your backyard as they shy away from human interaction in the wild.
A pair of Andean Condors on the top of a rock
Both California and Andean condors are considered scavengers, gaining the largest share of their food from the bodies of dead animals, many of which have already begun to decompose.
California condors will not generally eat roadkill; they are wary of human interaction and seek feeding sites away from areas where they are likely to be disturbed or interrupted by people.
Andean condors, however, are likely to scavenge on any source of dead animal meat, regardless of how it has died.
Condors are highly unlikely to eat humans, preferring instead to eat the meat of wild animals’ dead bodies that they encounter in their rocky shrubland habitats.
The carcass of a dog could provide a suitable source of food, if spotted by a condor.
Condors will eat the carcasses of wolves, foxes, coyotes, and other similar-sized wild mammals.
California Condor perched high up in a tree
Condors tend to stay away from areas that bring them into close contact with humans, so your pet cat is probably reasonably safe from being a condor’s next meal. The carcasses of wild cats, such as cougars and mountain lions are, however, viable food sources for condors.
In coastal areas, Andean condors will eat carcasses that have washed up on beaches, including dead whales, seals, sharks, and other fish.
California condors do not eat any birds, and will even be driven away from scavenging at a carcass if a golden eagle arrives.
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