Short scientific articles

There is something appealing about a brief scientific article, dense with new and interesting information.

Here I note 5 articles which were so brief that they shared a journal page with at least one other article. Yet they all provide valuable scientific knowledge about the California condor.

In 1976, long-time condor watcher John Borneman reported on condors flying up into clouds and disappearing from view. In just 2 paragraphs, Borneman drew together his own observations and those of 2 others, and he cited an article concerning this behavior. Here’s an excerpt:

At 1430 on 24 March 1965 I saw an adult California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) soaring south about 100 feet above a north-south ridge line in the Sespe Condor Sanctuary in Ventura County, California. The altitude of the ridge top was about 4000 feet above sea level. When the condor reached my position it began circling for altitude. It then headed northwest, gained altitude, and went out of sight into opaque stratus clouds at an altitude of approximately 5000 feet.

Condors are so often described as being cautious and fidgety on the ground. But in the air they will fly even where they cannot see. This suggests a remarkable degree of comfort with their atmospheric environment.

Robert Woods weighed in on vulture identification, including this concerning the differences between turkey vultures and California condors when the 2 species are seen in flight:

The Turkey Vulture’s wing curves smoothly upward toward the tip, the inner half being quite straight when looked at edgewise, or possibly slightly concave on the top. The Condor’s wing also curves upward at the tip, but the inner half is decidedly arched, so that the wing, when viewed from front or rear, forms a very symmetrical sigmoid curve.

Woods’ language is clear and elegant. He could be contrasting architectural styles, rather than bird species.

In The Condor, an unnamed author reported on the discoveries of egg collectors. The article provides details about a California condor nest cave:

The size of the hole was about sixteen inches at its entrance, opening or broadening inwardly to a chamber six feet long, 2½ feet wide and two feet high.

The egg is also described:

The egg … is ashy green in color, deeply pitted all over and … has several warty excrescences on the surface somewhat larger than a pin head in size. The texture is close grained, and the egg glossy, measuring 4.44 × 2.66 inches. It is noticeable that these eggs lose their greenish cast within a few years after having been collected and this accounts for apparently conflicting statements in published articles on the species.

Encountering this century-old discussion of condor eggs finally provided me with an explanation for why these eggs can look quite different in different photographs.

Egmont Rett provided a post-mortem analysis of a condor carcass found by a rancher, including this:

The bird had been dead about two or three weeks and was badly decomposed on the side on which it had lain on the wet ground…. No bones were broken, but the left femur and tibia were badly infected by a disease which was probably osteomyolitis. The processes of both bones were eaten away almost entirely. The indications were that this Condor had suffered with this disease for quite some time and that it undoubtedly caused the bird’s death.

The majority of the articles in this post are from The Auk, the official publication of the American Ornithologists’ Union. First published in 1884, the journal’s name comes from the now-extinct great auk. An image of this wonderful bird has long been featured on the cover of each issue:
01 Auk 1946 - cover

My favorite of the 5 short articles here is by Malcolm Davis, shown here as it was printed in The Auk:
02 Davis 1946
What a delight to encounter “This great vulture greets the sun …” in a scientific journal. While the term “sun-worship stance” will be considered anthropomorphizing by some, one can readily imagine what that posture looks like simply from the description.

From my experience as an environmental scientist, I know that a good portion of the information contained in brief and older articles like these is not part of the working knowledge of current scientists. So it is fortunate that these articles were published and are archived in libraries.

In fact, a great deal of older scientific literature is readily available to all. For example, back issues of the 2 journals considered here, The Auk and The Condor, along with a number of other ornithology journals, are available to anyone without charge via the Searchable Ornithological Research Archive. Search for a species or topic of interest and you are bound to discover something “new”.


Borneman, John C. California condors soaring into opaque clouds. Auk. July 1976.

Woods, Robert S. Field identification of vultures. Auk. July 1929.

Two more eggs of California condor. Condor. May 1900.

Rett, E Z. Record of another condor death. Condor. July 1946.

Davis, Malcolm. Morning display of the California condor. Auk. January 1946.