The skull

Consider the skull of the California condor!

The California condor’s skull …

includes a beak strong enough to pull flesh from a whale carcass yet delicate enough to feed a new hatchling

contains eyes that identify food from great altitudes

protects a brain that guides the birds through a complex life that may last for decades

To appreciate this intricate and rugged structure, there’s nothing like holding one in your hand. I have never held a real condor skull but I do have a life-size replica:

01 Replica skull

This is a commercially-available model, one that is worth a thousand pictures.

Besides the elongated form of the skull, the most notable feature is the large gap between the nostrils (the opening nearest the beak). This opening is one of the features that distinguish the vultures of the New World (including the California condor and turkey vulture) from those of the Old World.

The oldest image of a California condor skull that I have found so far is this life-size profile from a government report published in 1883:

02 Shufeldt 1883 - image

The report is “Osteology of the Cathartidæ”, a detailed, 80-page analysis of the skeletons of New World vultures. The author, R. W. Shufeldt, M.D., was also the artist; he writes that the drawing is “from my own pencil”. Shufeldt is identified in the report as a Captain in the Medical Department of the U.S. Army.

Shufeldt includes a discussion of the specimens available for analysis:

Of Pseudogryphus californianus [the California condor] … we have two imperfect skeletons; they, however, show the cranium and the majority of the principal bones. We may consider ourselves fortunate, however, in having even this much, for this Vulture is becoming rarer and rarer each year that slips by ….

The author goes on to explain the increasing rarity of condors, including this:

… being a bird not difficult to approach, [the California condor] forms a good target for many a hunter who chances to meet it with rifle in hand, and happens to be ambitious to add to his record the fact of having slain the largest bird in North America.

Shufeldt imagined that his drawing of the condor’s skull would have historical significance:

… our California Vulture [condor] will soon be reckoned among the birds that were, and life-size portraits of the bones of his skeleton will be ranked among those of the famed Dodo, and the great Auk.

I celebrate the fact that Shufeldt’s prediction has not come to pass.

Here is a taste of the osteological analysis in Shufeldt’s substantial report:

In the quadrate bones we usually find a single, rather large, sub-elliptical opening at the bases of the mastoid ends or processes with a large one at their summit in Pseudogryphus—while several such foramina occur on the superior aspects of the articular extremities of the lower jaw ….

To conclude this post, I show a modern illustration of a California condor skull, in a “face to face” view:

03 Matthew Twombly - skull

This is the creation of Matthew Twombly, who has worked for the publications National Geographic and Science.

Twombly explained his artistic process to me by email:

… I actually molded my own skull out of clay from lots of different reference photos of condor heads and skulls, then I drew from that model so I could get the angle and perspective just how I liked. The process was incredibly helpful in actually understanding the form.

Below Twombly’s skull drawing (not shown on the scan above) is a description of the California condor’s history, a range map, and a diagram comparing the size of a human and a condor.

Twombly has produced a striking graphic and I am delighted to have a print in my collection. The California condor skull is just one in his series “Great Species of North America” (available for purchase online).

I am seeking a replica of a California condor’s humerus (in part so I can compare it against my upper arm). Information on where I might obtain one would be welcome.


Shufeldt, R. W. Osteology of the Cathartidæ. In Twelfth annual report of the United States geological and geographical survey of the territories: a report of progress of the exploration in Wyoming and Idaho for the year 1878. F. V. Hayden, editor. Government Printing Office. 1883.