Andean Condors Can Stay Aloft For Hours Without Flapping Wings

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Despite their massive size Andean condors can remain aloft for hours while expending little energy (Pedro Szekely / CC BY-SA-2.0/Creativecommons.org)

Andean Condors, which weigh between 20 to 30 pounds (9 to 13 kilograms) and boast a wingspan of more than 10 feet, are one of the world's heaviest and largest flying birds. Yet the majestic vultures, which spend their days circling the Andes mountains and nearby Pacific coasts of western South America in search of carcasses, manage to stay afloat for hours.

Though researchers have long suspected that the massive creatures conserved energy by using rising air currents to surf the skies, nobody had ever documented how infrequently the birds used their wings. Now, a new study has found that the incredibly energy-efficient condors use their wings just 1 percent of their time aloft – mostly during takeoff and landing. In comparison, ospreys and storks flap their wings 25 percent and 17 percent of the time, respectively, during their overland migratory flights.

"Condors are expert pilots, but we just had not expected they would be quite so expert," said study co-author Professor Emily Shepard, a biologist at Swansea University in Wales.

The researchers tagged the condors with flight recorders to monitor their movement (Credit: Emily Shepard)

The extensive research, conducted in Patagonia — a semi-arid plateau on the southernmost tip of South America — from 2013 to 2018, entailed attaching high-tech flight recorders to the birds' wings. Shepard and her team, in collaboration with Sergio Lambertucci, a biologist at the National University of Comahue in Argentina, often spent hours waiting for the magnificent animals to be lured in by strategically placed sheep carcasses and bones.

The information collected — 320 different data points per second — was too much to send back via the phone or satellite network. Hence, the researchers had to physically retrieve the devices, which were designed to fall off the birds after a week. While an embedded GPS tracker allowed the scientists to ascertain the recorders' exact locations, getting to them was no easy task given Patagonia's rough terrain and minimal infrastructure.

Bird researcher Orlando Mastrantuoni recovers a condor tag in the Andes mountains (Credit: Emily Shepard)

After losing seven recorders for every one they retrieved, the team shifted their focus to younger condors, who tend to hover over the communal roosts, which are located on gently rolling hills rather than the cliff tops frequented by adults. The 250 hours of flight data collected from eight juvenile condors revealed that the birds flew for an average of three hours but flapped their wings for less than two minutes of the time. One efficient aviator managed to cover 106 miles (172 kilometers) over five hours without a single flap!

The researchers, who published their findings in the journal PNAS on July 28, 2020, say the large fliers expend the most energy during takeoff. However, once in the air, they can soar for long periods of time without turning on their "engines." The scientists speculate that adult condors may demonstrate an even more impressive flight record than their younger counterparts.

Resources: theconversation.com, theguardian.com

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84 Comments
  • carter1ww
    carter1wwFriday, September 18, 2020 at 8:34 am
    cool
    • 123loveshak
      123loveshakFriday, September 18, 2020 at 6:55 am
      hi wow this is cool
      • elivarathewolf
        elivarathewolfFriday, September 18, 2020 at 6:54 am
        SUPER COOL!
        • cjluvsnoodles
          cjluvsnoodlesFriday, September 18, 2020 at 5:58 am
          woahhh awesome thats a big bird
          • darkraven12
            darkraven12Thursday, September 17, 2020 at 6:48 am
            That was a cool bird. Amazing to see that bird fly without flapping it's wings for a long period of time :D
            • polarbearlover2
              polarbearlover2Wednesday, September 16, 2020 at 9:19 am
              Wow I think its interesting that condors can fly without flapping their wings for hours. Usually its called gliding or soaring. It's amazing! 😀
              • 123loveshak
                123loveshakFriday, September 18, 2020 at 6:57 am
                this is cool
                • beast5912
                  beast5912Wednesday, September 16, 2020 at 5:03 pm
                  Most birds do that but not this one like you said these are amazing
                • senia8950
                  senia8950Wednesday, September 16, 2020 at 8:02 am
                  Wow that is a big bird !!! It is amazing
                  • baseball14
                    baseball14Wednesday, September 16, 2020 at 7:30 am
                    That's incredible, Its a plane, no it's a UFO, no its a BIRD.
                    • beast5912
                      beast5912Wednesday, September 16, 2020 at 5:06 pm
                      It’s a plane no it’s a bird no it’s a sandwich It supper man
                    • bamewegy-160001709084
                      bamewegy-160001709084Wednesday, September 16, 2020 at 5:57 am
                      so cool
                      • pocakeza-156856485565
                        pocakeza-156856485565Tuesday, September 15, 2020 at 7:16 pm
                        thats a big bird