Thank you, Governor Schwarzenegger

Many coin designs incorporate images of birds. Several of the US Mint’s state quarters feature birds, including the peregrine falcon for Idaho, scissor-tailed flycatcher for Oklahoma, and Caroline wren for South Carolina. More recently, quarter dollar coins honoring the El Yunque National Forest, Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, and Everglades National Park have included the Puerto Rican parrot, great blue heron, great egret, anhinga, and roseate spoonbill.

Several South American countries feature the Andean condor on coins, some going back to at least the 19th century.

But I know of only one “real” coin with a California condor on it: the 2005 California state quarter.

01 California quarter
As detailed by Cathy Clark in The Numismatist, designing the California state quarter was a 3-year process involving 2 governors and a 20-member committee of distinguished Californians. Television advertisements invited the public to submit design ideas. Nearly a million people voted in an online poll. Governor Gray Davis eventually narrowed the field to 5 designs which the US Mint then refined. By the time these refinements were complete and ready for further input from the governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger had replaced Davis. Governor Schwarzenegger chose a design featuring Yosemite National Park and John Muir, but specifically requested that a California condor be added to the design. Schwarzenegger saw the condor as, in Clark’s words, “a symbol of the state’s continuing conservation efforts”.

Yosemite National Park and John Muir are closely connected to each other. More than anyone, Muir worked to have Yosemite Valley protected as a national park. But the juxtaposition of Yosemite and Muir with a California condor led me to wonder what associations condors have with Yosemite and Muir.

02 Stebbins & Stebbins 1954
The journal Yosemite Nature Notes twice produced special issues about the birds found in the park. Neither of these lists the California condor as part of the park’s bird community. More recently, the guide book Discovering Sierra Birds: Western Slope reported there were no records of California condors in Yosemite National Park.

Of course, Yosemite National Park only came into existence in 1890. Certainly in earlier years, when condors were seen throughout and beyond California, there had to have been California condors at least visiting Yosemite.

Evidence for condors in Yosemite comes from the Native Americans of the Yosemite region. The legends of the Yosemite Miwok people include condors named Yayil and Mol’-luk.
03 La Pena and others 1981

As to John Muir, I have yet to find anything he has written that mentions California condors. The recently published John Muir’s Book of the Animals does not mention condors. If anyone knows of writings by Muir about condors, I would be grateful for this information.

More than 500 million of the California quarters were produced. That’s more than a million coins for each California condor currently living.

When I happen upon a 2005 California quarter dollar coin I am reminded of my home. I am grateful to Governor Schwarzenegger for recommending that a California condor be included on the coin, along with Yosemite Valley and John Muir.

Clark, Cathy L. The California state quarter: a wild choice. Numismatist. January 2005.

Beatty, M E, and C A Harwell. Birds of Yosemite. Yosemite Nature Notes. January 1938. Revised November 1950.

Stebbins, Cyril A, and Robert C Stebbins. Birds of Yosemite National Park. Yosemite Nature Notes. August 1954.

Beedy, Edward C, and Stephen L Granholm. Discovering Sierra birds: western slope. Yosemite Natural History Association and Sequoia Natural History Association. 1985.

La Pena, Frank, and others, editors. Legends of the Yosemite Miwok. Heyday. 1981.

Muir, John. John Muir’s book of animals. Heyday. 2015.

50 state quarters report. US Mint. 1998.