LESSON 4 The condor of the andes
In those sterile heights(1) Nature withholds her fostering influence alike from vegetable and from animal life. The scantiest vegetation can scarcely draw nutriment from the ungenial soil, and animals shun the dreary and shelterless wilds. The condor, or South American vulture, alone finds itself in its native element amidst these mountain deserts. On the inaccessible summits of the Cordillera, and at an elevation of from 10,000 to 15,000 feet, this bird builds its nest, and hatches its young in the months of April and May.
Few animals have attained so wide a celebrity as the condor. This bird was known in Europe at a period when its native land was numbered among those fabulous regions which are regarded as the scenes of imaginary wonders. The most extravagant accounts of the condor were written and read; and general credence was granted to every story which travellers brought from the fairy-land of gold and silver. It was only at the commencement of the present century that Humboldt overthrew the extravagant notions that had previously prevailed respecting the size, strength, and habits of this extraordinary bird.
The full-grown condor measures, from the point of the beak to the end of the tail, from four feet ten inches to five feet; and from the tip of one wing to that of the other, from twelve to fourteen feet! This bird feeds chiefly upon carrion;(2) it is only when impelled by hunger that it seizes living animals, and even then only the small and defenceless, such as the young of sheep, vicunas,(3) and llamas.(4)
It cannot raise great weights with its feet; which, however, it uses to aid the power of its beak. The principal strength of the condor lies in its neck and in its feet; yet it cannot, when flying, carry a weight exceeding eight or ten pounds. All accounts of sheep and calves being carried off by condors are mere exaggerations.
The bird passes a great part of the day in sleep, and hovers in quest of prey chiefly in the morning and evening. Whilst soaring at a height beyond the reach of human eyes, the sharpsighted condor discerns its prey on the level heights beneath it, and darts down upon it with the swiftness of lightning. When a bait is laid, it is curious to observe the number of condors which assemble in a quarter of an hour in a spot near which not one had been previously visible. These birds possess the senses of sight and smell in a singularly powerful degree.
Some old travellers have affirmed that the plumage of the condor cannot be pierced by a musket ball. This absurdity is scarcely worthy of contradiction; but it is nevertheless true that the bird has a singular tenacity of life, and that it is seldom killed by fire-arms, unless when shot in some vital part.
Its plumage, particularly on the wings, is very strong and thick. The natives, therefore, seldom attempt to shoot the condor. They usually catch it by traps or by the lasso, or kill it by stones flung from slings, or by the bolas.(5)
A curious method of capturing the condor alive is practised in one province. A fresh cow-hide, with some fragments of flesh adhering to it, is spread out on one of the level heights, and an Indian provided with ropes creeps beneath it, whilst some others station themselves in ambush near the spot ready to assist him. Presently a condor, attracted by the smell of the flesh, darts down upon the cow-hide; and then the Indian, who is concealed under it, seizes the bird by the legs, and binds them fast in the skin, as if in a bag. The captured condor flaps its wings, and makes ineffectual attempts to fly, but is speedily secured, and carried in triumph to the nearest village. Live condors are frequently sold in the markets of Chili and Peru, where a very fine one may be purchased for a dollar and a half.(6)
—Dr. J. von Tschudi: Travels in Peru.
—Dr. J. von Tschudi
What other name is given to the condor? Where does it build its nest? What accounts were current before the 'present' (i.e. 19th) century? Who overthrew these? What are the dimensions of a full-grown condor? On what does it chiefly feed? Where does its principal strength lie? When does it go in quest of prey? What shows the keenness of its sight and smell? Why do the natives seldom attempt to shoot the condor? How do they kill it? What curious method of capturing it is practised in one province? For what may a live condor sometimes be bought?