An Andean condor soars above the Patagonian steppe in Argentina. (AP)

An Andean condor soars above the Patagonian steppe in Argentina. (AP)

Researchers hold an Andean condor that they will tag with a GPS and release. (AP)

Researchers hold an Andean condor that they will tag with a GPS and release. (AP)

The condor, the world’s largest soaring bird, rides air currents for hours without flapping. (AP)

The condor, the world’s largest soaring bird, rides air currents for hours without flapping. (AP)

Flying without Flapping

Posted: September 1, 2020

A new study shows: With this bird, it’s all flight and no flap.

Well, it’s almost no flap. The Andean condor has a wingspan stretching 10 feet. That’s almost as long as a Volkswagen Beetle. The big bird weighs up to 33 pounds, making it the heaviest soaring bird alive.

But all that weight doesn’t wear the condor out. Far from it! Scientists strapped recording equipment to eight condors in Patagonia. (Patagonia, a plateau in South America, belongs partly to Argentina and partly to Chile.) The devices record each wingbeat the birds make over 250 hours of flight time.

How much did the condors flap? The birds spent just 1% of their time in the air flapping their wings. And most of that took place during takeoff. One bird flew more than five hours without flapping its wings. It coasted more than 100 miles!

“Condors are expert pilots—but we just hadn’t expected they would be quite so expert,” says biologist Emily Shepard. She worked on the study.

Look up at the sky. Besides a few clouds, it’s empty, right? It doesn’t look that way to birds. When they fly, they experience a landscape of wind gusts, currents of warm rising air, and streams of air pushed upward by mountains. Condors ride these currents.

Scientists who study flying animals consider two types of flight: flapping flight and soaring flight. What’s the difference? Flapping is like peddling a bicycle uphill. Soaring is like coasting downhill.  

God designed the Andean condor to have extreme soaring skill. This helps it thrive as a scavenger. Each day, a condor spends hours circling high mountains looking for meals of carrion (dead animals).

The recording devices fall off the birds after about a week. Sometimes the devices drop off into nests on huge cliffs in the middle of the Andes Mountains. Scientists hike for days to get them back. If only they could soar up and over like the condor!

But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. — Isaiah 40:31