Updated 6 August 2016
How much does a California condor cost? What is the value of the California condor? What is the California condor worth?
These questions have been considered and answered repeatedly for over a century. In this post I offer some examples.
Decades ago, the buying and selling of dead birds and eggs was not uncommon.
In 1897, Donald Cohen offered a second-hand report that
… a man shot a California Condor and sold it to a saloonkeeper in a country town for $2.00.
An advertisement in a 1904 issue of The Oölogist offered for sale a variety of bird skins including that of the “Calif. Condor”. The ad gives a “list” price of $40 but then shows $12 as “my price”. By comparison, the reduced price for a “White-faced Glossy Ibis” was $1.25 and for a “Calif. Jay”, 28¢.
The University of California, Berkeley, listed among the gifts it received in 1912-1913
… five perfect specimens of the now nearly extinct California condor (Gymnogyps californianus), which were collected between 1880 and 1895 by the late husband of the donor, Edward B. Towne, and are valued at $1,000.
The newspaper San Francisco Call ran a column devoted to answering questions from readers. Here’s the entire text of one answer from 1896:
California Vultures–A. S., Santa Maria, Santa Barbara County, Cal. There is no law to prevent any one in the State of California having in possession eggs of the California vulture. Such eggs have no commercial value.
The author of that answer would have been surprised by an article in the Literary Digest 30 years later. The article’s title was “A Bird that Lays $1,500 Eggs”. That price had fallen in half by 1939 when the Los Angeles Times ran the article “Eggs: $9,000.00 a Dozen”. Just 5 years after that, the price had fallen again when the Chicago Natural History Museum received a pair that were “valued conservatively at $100 each”.
The preceding examples concern an individual bird, in one form or another. But what about the value of the species as a whole?
In the magazine Dodge News, an unnamed “outdoor enthusiast” complained about the establishment of the closed-to-the-public Sisquoc Condor Sanctuary because they
… sacrificed the recreational value of a large area ‘in exchange for the extremely doubtful preservation of a bird of no value, esthetically or otherwise’.
By contrast, a report from the Harris School of Public Policy Studies at the University of Chicago calculated the economic value of endangered species. For the California condor, the author arrived at an “Implied dollar value=1568176.33”.
All the efforts to prevent the California condor from going extinct and then to begin its recovery have been expensive. Of course, these costs have drawn attention.
An article about the condor in Time magazine was titled simply “The $25 Million Bird”. A report on the hatching of a condor chick in People magazine included this:
“You could say this was a $20 million egg, because that’s how much has been spent to date to save the California condor,” said Don Sterner, 37, lead condor keeper of the [San Diego Wild Animal] park.
In her 2009 undergraduate honors thesis, Melanie Davis answered the question of the California condor’s value as a species another way, concluding that “the costs of this [condor recovery] project currently outweigh the benefits”.
Others have also questioned the cost of the recovery program. A 1981 article in National Wildlife was titled “Is the California Condor Worth Saving?” The subtitle of an article in U.S. News and World Report in 1991 was “Scientists Might Save the California Condor. But Is it Worth the Price?”
Fortunately, many have recognized the worth of the California condor in terms other than money. I will end this post with these comments.
Early ornithologist J. G. Cooper described the California condor as a “doomed bird” in an 1890 article. But he also wrote:
The vulture is certainly worth preserving if possible, for it is one of the native curiosities of the west coast, known from Lower California to Puget Sound, and the largest land bird of North America.
Such scientific understatement was also displayed by William Beebe in 1909 when he described the condor as being “Among other noteworthy species of birds” on display at the New York Zoological Park.
An article in Westways magazine from 1965 included this quotation from S. Dillon Ripley, head of the Smithsonian Institution:
The condor is of incalculable value because its genes have been preserved intact since the Pleistocene Age.
In 1955, Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher put the matter in terms that many birders can understand, describing the California condor as “worth traveling ten thousand miles to see.”
A previous post considered the condor’s “worth” in terms of the going rate for prints of Audubon’s paintings: Are some bird species worth more than others?
Just after this post went up, I came across an article about the economist Arthur B. Laffer that is relevant to this post. An advisor to President Reagan and promoter of the idea that unleashing capitalism will solve the world’s problems, Laffer offered this approach to saving the California condor:
Put a price on the bird’s survival … and they’ll be so plentiful we’ll all be “eating condor cacciatore.”
Cohen, Donald A, editor. California department. Osprey. July-August 1897.
Short, Ernest H. Bird skins. Oölogist. February 1904.
Barrows, David P. Annual report of the president of the university 1912-1913. University of California Bulletin. December 1913.
Answers to correspondents: California vultures. San Francisco Call. 2 May 1896.
A bird that lays $1,500 eggs. Literary Digest. 7 August 1926.
Abbott, Jacob Bates. Eggs: $9,000.00 a dozen. Los Angeles Times. 14 May 1939.
Smith, Ellen T. Museum receives rare eggs of California condor. Chicago Natural History Museum Bulletin. March-April 1944.
Speer, Lou. Can this bird survive? Dodge News. February 1971.
Coursey, Don L. The revealed demand for a public good: evidence from endangered and threatened species. University of Chicago. 1994.
Nash, J Madeleine, and James Willwerth. The $25 million bird. Time. 27 January 1992.
Meet Molloko – one ugly chick but beautiful news for California’s threatened condors. People. 16 May 1988.
Davis, Melanie. A cost-benefit analysis of recent vertebrate reintroduction programs in the United States. Miami University [Ohio]. 2009.
Nugent, John Peer. Is the California condor worth saving? National Wildlife. August-September 1981.
Carpenter, Betsy. Back from the abyss. U.S. News and World Report. 14 October 1991.
Cooper, J G. A doomed bird. Zoe. October 1890.
Beebe, C William. Rare birds in the New York Zoological Park. Science. 12 November 1909.
Smith, Dick, and Robert Easton. The condor controversy. Westways. July 1965.
Peterson, Roger Tory, and James Fisher. Wild America: the record of a 30,000 mile journey around the continent by a distinguished naturalist and his British colleague. Houghton Mifflin. 1955.
Balzar, John. Laffer learning the economics of seeking office. Los Angeles Times. 24 April 1986.