Live trees or dead trees?

Updated 29 January 2021

Birds and trees go together.

I have seen hundreds of images of California condors roosting or nesting in trees. In most of these images, the tree is dead.

Is that because California condors prefer their trees dead? Or is it that people prefer images of condors in trees that are dead?

Given that California condors eat dead, and often large, animals, it does seem fitting that these great birds might prefer dead and large trees. It also makes sense that people might associate the big vultures with big dead trees.

Artist Guy Coheleach paired a California condor and a dead tree:

01 Coheleach - Caras 1970

The above illustration is from the November 1970 issue of Audubon magazine.

In the March 1978 issue of Audubon magazine, a photo by Keith Axelson captures a condor in a live tree:

02 Axelson - McNulty 1978

To nail down my sense that condors are more likely to be portrayed with dead trees than live trees, I looked at all the images posted to this blog prior to January 2018. Setting aside the famous Audubon painting, which appears several times, I found 62 illustrations or photos showing one or more California condors roosting in a tree, just taking off from a tree, or about to land in a tree. By “tree” I mean even just a section of a tree branch, a section that might be in the cage of a captive condor or supporting a stuffed condor in a museum exhibit.

Of these 62 images, only 6 showed what was obviously a live tree. All the rest showed what appeared to be a dead tree (or branch).

Now it may be that I like to see California condors in dead trees. I have long been fascinated by both live and dead trees. To my mind, a snag, a standing dead tree, can be as beautiful as a live tree. Live and dead trees both play essential and wonderful roles in our environment.

A curious characteristic of live trees is that they inevitably incorporate elements of dead trees. Consider this photo by Carl Koford:

03 Koford - Borneman 1966

The live tree above has lost its “top” and so provides a fine roost for a condor. Like a dead tree, this live but broken tree provides a roosting condor with a clear view of the surroundings, and makes for easy landings and takeoffs. So even live trees can have a dead “side”.

Koford’s photo above appears in the Modern Maturity magazine for August-September 1966. The caption indicates that the tree is a “big Cone Spruce”, a name sometimes given to Pseudotsuga macrocarpa (a tree that is not a spruce). As this tree species is found only in southwestern California it is an especially appropriate roost tree for a California condor.

This next image is a portion of a photo by Kathleen Hoover that is captioned “Condor Country”:

04 Hoover - Smith & Easton 1964

That caption is perfect as the entire photo beautifully shows the relationship between a California condor, a big dead tree, and the wide-open component of the condor’s complex habitat. Hoover’s photo appears in Dick Smith and Robert Easton’s California Condor: Vanishing American (McNally and Loftin, 1964).

For those who like to see California condors in live trees, below are the 6 posts that include such images:

Black & white photos from journals & magazines: 1908-1985
Color illustrations from books: 1930-1979
Color photos from journals & magazines: 1967-1988
Cover birds: 1978-2011
Early illustrations: 1797-1878
Essential books


Update Chick in tree

The photo above shows a gray condor nestling doing its best to actually become part of a dead tree (look close!). Tim Huntington’s remarkable photo appears 100 Condors!, the 2018-2019 annual report of the Ventana Wildlife Society.