Updated 4 December 2019
California condors have a reputation for suddenly appearing and disappearing. Here are 6 reports of this phenomenon from the 1850s to the 1970s.
The quotations below make plain the delight their authors experienced observing condors. We can experience some of that delight in their words, even decades after they were written.
Charles Pickering, as quoted by John Cassin:
In one instance [Pickering] records the appearance of several individuals of this species “so very suddenly on the death of an animal, that they seemed to have come down from the upper regions of the atmosphere.”
It has been frequently [a] matter of surprise how quickly these birds collect when a large animal dies. None may be seen in any direction, but in a few minutes after a horse or other large animal gives up the ghost they may be descried like specks in the æther, nearing by circles to the prey …
Titus Fey Cronise:
… soaring generally at such a height as to be almost imperceptible, until it perceives a dead or dying animal, even at a distance of many miles, when it sweeps rapidly down to it, and in some districts a dozen vultures gather to the feast in a few minutes, from the distant sky, where none were visible to human vision before.
As the mother [condor] sat there on her perch, she often turned her head and scanned the heavens, looking for the coming of her mate. By watching her, our attention was first called to a mere speck in the sky. It grew with surprising rapidity, and as it took better form, we could see a bird coming toward us with extreme speed. Thru the field-glass, we could see that the feet were dropped, and we knew it was the male condor, for this was the way he always came. With one great slide to the west, and a long swerve to the north, he circled with the curve of the canyon and brought up on the top of the dead pine only thirty feet away. I never saw such a slide as that bird took. Such smoothness and grace! And such tremendous speed!
J. R. Pemberton:
I was wearily ascending the last hundred feet of Divide Peak … when I suddenly came on three of these great birds, sitting stolidly upon a great boulder upon the very top of the mountain. It seemed, then, that without any other motion than a lazy stretching of their wings, and the posing anew of the whole body, that they could change from a bird to a speck, and then vanish. No bird can equal that exhibition of aviation.
Suddenly, a speck appears above a distant ridge to the south…. Within seconds three condors … are passing overhead…. For a brief, exhilarating moment we experience a close-up glimpse of one of the rarest, most spectacular and most endangered species in the world. Then, as quickly as they appeared, they are gone.
Not bad for one of the largest flying birds on Earth, a bird that is also known for rarely flapping its wings.
While not about the California condor specifically, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem “The Song of Hiawatha” (1855) should be included in any discussion of vultures appearing as if out of nowhere. Here are the relevant lines from Longfellow:
Never stoops the soaring vulture
On his quarry in the desert,
On the sick or wounded bison,
But another vulture, watching
From his high aerial look-out,
Sees the downward plunge, and follows;
And a third pursues the second,
Coming from the invisible ether,
First a speck, and then a vulture,
Till the air is dark with pinions.
Cassin, John. United States Exploring Expedition: during the years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842 under the command of Charles Wilkes, U.S.N.: mammalogy and ornithology. Lippincott. 1858.
[Barnston, George]. Abridged sketch of the life of Mr. David Douglas. Canadian Naturalist and Geologist. June 1860.
Cronise, Titus Fey. The natural wealth of California. H. H. Bancroft. 1868.
Finley, William L. Life history of the California condor: part III – home life of the condors. Condor. March-April 1908.
Pemberton, J R. Some bird notes from Ventura County. Condor. January-February 1910.
Tekulsky, Mathew. The last days of the condor. California PSA Magazine. February 1979.