Field guides: 1904-1950

The modern way to identify birds in the field may be to run an app on a smart phone. But in earlier times (and for some of us even now) bird identification involved consulting books that were made of paper.

Here I describe some field guides from the 1st half of the 20th century that include the California condor. These are books that were (and still are!) useful for identifying bird species. These are also books small enough to be readily carried. My maximum size limit is Alvaro Jaramillo’s beautiful new Field Guide to Birds of California:
01 Jaramillo 2005

The birds in Irene Grosvenor Wheelock’s Birds of California are usefully organized by a combination of habitat, widely-recognized types, and colors. The “California Vulture, or Condor” is depicted in a full-page plate by Bruce Horsfall:
02 Wheelock 1904
In the 2+ pages of text devoted to the condor, Wheelock provides the essential descriptive information, advice for the “Eastern bird-lover” on how to find condors, and some opinions. For example:

He [the California condor] is magnificent to look at, – nearly eleven feet from tip of wing to tip of wing, – but in some ways he is very stupid.

She later considers withdrawing “stupid” after noting the “wonderful sagacity” that condors exhibit in training their young.

Wheelock, writing in 1904, is pleased with the efforts underway to protect the California condor and is optimistic about the birds’ future:

For a long time the species was on the verge of extermination, but through the efforts of the Cooper [Ornithological] Club it has been protected, and according to latest reports it is increasing in numbers.

Nearly a decade later, Charles Reed published his Western Bird Guide. This book is a gem. It’s about the size of two smart phones stacked together. Yet it includes 231 pages on each of which are descriptions of 2 or 3 bird species and a color painting.

The illustration of the “California vulture” also shows cousin turkey vulture:
03 Reed 1913
Unlike Wheelock, Reed is not optimistic about the California condor’s future:

The birds are very rare in their restricted range, and becoming more so each year, owing to their being shot and the nests robbed.

Published in 1925, Field Book of Birds of the Southwestern United States by Luther Wyman and Elizabeth Burnell provides a few lines of description of each species, along with a line drawing and range map:
04 Wyman & Burnell 1925
This book continues to use the name California vulture while noting that the species is “[p]opularly known as the California Condor”.

Wyman and Burnell have little hope for the future of the condor:

Now so reduced in numbers that early extinction is almost certain.

Published 2 years after Wyman and Burnell’s guide, Ralph Hoffmann’s Birds of the Pacific States features life-like drawings and detailed descriptions. Allan Brooks created the fine illustrations, including the California condor on the cover:
05 Hoffmann 1927
A more detailed version of this drawing is included inside.

Hoffmann’s enthusiasm for the California condor is clear:

The ambition of every California bird student is to see a Condor.

The author’s description of the species is effusive, even as he conveys descriptive details and make useful comparisons with other species.

Unlike the guides considered so far, John Bichard May’s 1935 field guide is concerned with a specific group of birds. The Hawks of North America includes 38 species, among them the turkey and black vultures and the California condor.

This is the first guide described here to show an immature condor, with it’s black, rather than reddish, head:
06 May 1935
This painting, again by Allan Brooks, was previously published in the May 1925 issue of the magazine Bird-Lore.

Another illustration in May’s guide shows a soaring condor from below, along with similar views of other species. This guide is, again, the first among those described here to provide this perspective.

May provides detailed information on distinguishing the condor from the turkey vulture, a range map showing the current and former breeding range of the condor, and considerable concern for the condor’s fate. His feelings for the species are made plain in one sentence:

The great California Condor is now so rare that only in a very few favored places may one even hope to have diligent search rewarded by a glimpse of this magnificent bird, our largest North American species, which, once seen, will never be forgotten.

After the success of his Field Guide to the Birds, which focused on eastern North America, Roger Tory Peterson published A Guide to Western Birds in 1941. The book’s half-dozen sentence description of the California condor is mainly concerned with distinguishing the condor from the turkey vulture and golden eagle. The last sentence, describing the condor’s range, is blunt:

Now very rare, a small number living in mts. of s. Calif.

This guide includes a nice drawing of the condor by the author:
07 Peterson 1941

Ernest Sheldon Booth’s Birds of the West was first published in 1948. My copy is the “new” edition dated 1950.

Harry Baerg provided the drawing of the California condor in the text:
08 Booth 1950 - within text
Booth devotes half a page to the condor. Unlike the guides considered so far, Booth makes no mention of the rarity or vulnerable state of the species. If anything, the statement of the condor’s distribution conveys the opposite message:

Resident in the coast ranges from San Benito County to Los Angeles County, California, and the Sierra San Pedro Matir of northwestern Lower California.

The drawing on the guide’s inside cover highlights notable species in western North America, including the California condor:
09 Booth 1950 - inside cover
There’s no indication as to whether this handsome map is also by Baerg or by the book’s other illustrator, Carl Petterson.

Finally, I note a book that is the smallest of this lot but one that is not useful for identification. Since 1886, the American Ornithologists’ Union has been produced its door-stop-worthy check-lists of North American birds. When the 3rd edition was published in 1910, an abridged version was also produced. The size of a single smart phone, this booklet provides no descriptions or illustrations of its roughly 800 listed species. Here’s the section of the page listing the California condor:
10 Anon 1910

These field guides from the early 20th century provide a strong sense of what bird lovers thought about birds in the past. Some of these guides include art work that is excellent in its own right and that is still useful for bird identification. In the case of the California condor, most of these guides express concern for the species’ future and demonstrate that experts have long had different views about the state and fate of the condor.

Jaramillo, Alvaro. Field guide to birds of California. Scott and Nix. 2015.

Wheelock, Irene Grosvenor. Birds of California: an introduction to more than three hundred common birds of the state and adjacent islands. McClurg. 1904.

Reed, Chas K. Western bird guide: birds of the Rockies and west to the Pacific. Doubleday, Page. 1913.

Wyman, Luther E, and Elizabeth F Burnell. Field book of birds of the southwestern United States. Houghton Mifflin. 1925.

Hoffmann, Ralph. Birds of the Pacific states. Houghton Mifflin. 1927.

May, John Bichard. The hawks of North America: their field identification and feeding habits. National Association of Audubon Societies. 1935.

Peterson, Roger Tory. A field guide to western birds. Houghton Mifflin. 1941.

Booth, Ernest Sheldon. Birds of the West. New edition. Stanford University Press. 1950.

Abridged check-list of North American birds. American Ornithologists’ Union. 1910.