Birds of prey, raptors, vultures, or ???

Scientists are classifiers. Scientists identify species and then group species into genera, genera into families, and so on. Both scientific and common names are assigned to these various categories.

But classifications change over time and, even at a single point in time, not all scientists agree about how to classify species.

Here are 3 quick looks at changes in and controversies over the classification of the California condor. These examples all concern common names. The sources considered span 3 centuries.

Is the California condor a bird of prey?

In 1926, John Phillips described the California condor as the “finest of our birds of prey”. But in 1954, Harry De Lasaux said the condor was “not a bird of prey”. “True birds of prey” was how C. J. O. Harrison and colleagues categorized condors in 1978. In 1995, however, Ingrid Seibold and Andreas Helbig drew on newly-available genetic evidence to conclude that California condors were “not birds of prey”.

Is the California condor a raptor?

In 1933, G. Willett and others wrote about California condors under the title “On the California raptors”. Amadeo Rea strongly disagreed with the raptor characterization. In a 1980 article, Rea first described condors as “degenerate raptors” and then wrote “don’t even think they are raptors!” He reiterated his position in 1998, writing that California condors were “not raptors” but he did so in a book titled The Raptors of Arizona that includes a chapter on the California condor (by other authors). A recent article by avian veterinarian Maureen Murray titled “Raptor Gastroenterology” considered the California condor along with hawks, falcons, and owls.

Are California condors vultures?

Until well into the 20th century, the name “California vulture” was often applied to the bird we now call the California condor. However, there was considerable uncertainty as to whether the California vulture was, in fact, a vulture. In 1878, Brehm categorized the California condor as a “true vulture”. But Henry Seebohm went from “pseudo-vultures” in 1890 to “not vultures” in 1895. “Vulture-like” was the position taken by Frank Finn in 1908.

Reader, what do you think? Bird of prey or not, raptor or not, vulture or not, or something else entirely?

In fact, the vulture question is no longer controversial. It is now accepted that California condors are one of 7 species classified as New World vultures. (A quite different group of birds are classified as Old World vultures.) But the other 2 questions have not been resolved.

In the future I will have much more to say on the classification of the California condor. But the examples here demonstrate the debate, even in recent decades, about the California condor’s kin.

Phillips, John C. An attempt to list the extinct and vanishing birds of the Western Hemisphere with some notes on recent status, location of specimens, etc. Verhandlungen des 6 Internationalen Ornithologen–Kongresses in Kopenhagen 1926. Berlin. 1929.

De Lasaux, Harry. The California condor will soar again …….. American Forests. March 1954.

Harrison, C J O, and others, editors. Bird families of the world.  Abrams. 1978.

Seibold, Ingrid, and Andreas J Helbig. Evolutionary history of New and Old World vultures inferred from nucleotide sequences of the mitochondrial cytochrome b gene. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B. November 1995.

On the California raptors. Annual Report of the Hawk and Owl Society. 1933.

Rea, Amadeo M. New World vultures: diminishing and misunderstood: part I. Environment Southwest. Spring 1980.

Rea, Amadeo M. Introduction to New World vultures. In The raptors of Arizona. Richard L Glinski, editor. University of Arizona Press. 1998.

Murray, Maureen. Raptor gastroenterology. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Exotic Animal Practice. May 2014.

Brehm. Ornithology. Studer. 1878.

Seebohm, Henry. Classification of birds. Porter. 1890.

Seebohm, Henry. Classification of birds: supplement. Porter. 1895.

Finn, Frank. The world’s birds. Hutchinson. 1908.