Explaining a mysterious death

Updated 4 December 2019

The headline “Rare Condor’s Fall from the Sky Remains a Puzzle” appears in the Fresno Bee newspaper for 26 May 1965. The article explains:

The condor’s mysterious death was witnessed Sunday by G. B. (Jerry) Coigny … He said it was making low circles about 50 feet high when it stopped flying and plummeted to the ground.

Here’s the story, as told in a government report and other publications.

About a week after the Fresno Bee article, the Los Angeles Times ran “Game Officials Puzzled by Rare Condor’s Death” (3 June 1965). According to this article:

Indications pointed to 20th century man as the bird’s killer …

This article goes beyond reporting the news of the bird’s death. The California condor is described as “rare”, “beautiful”, “strange”, and “gangly”, and notes that:

… when airborne they are a living example of poetry in motion.

A day later, the California Department of Fish and Game issued its report:

01 Title - Brunetti 1965

02 Signature - Brunetti 1965

The full report describes a detailed examination of the dead condor conducted by Oscar Brunetti, Alden Miller, and others over the course of 2 days.

No evidence was found to suggest that the bird had been shot. Chemical analysis did not find poison in the stomach contents. However:

All of the musculature of the back was hemorrhagic, even over the kidney region. The back of the neck just above the shoulders was bruised. It was apparent that the bird had sustained severe damage to the entire back region …

A sketch indicated where the bruising was located:

03 Figure - Brunetti 1965

After nearly 4 pages of details, Brunetti asks:

04 Question - Brunetti 1965

He continues:

The following narrative, I believe, will serve to give a plausible explanation and I think the only reasonable one.

In short, the condor struck a power line. That collision caused no apparent injury but the bird

was upended by the wire and unable to recover fell heavily to the road, sustaining fatal injury.

Brunetti comes across as frustrated that he is unable to be more definite. He qualifies his conclusion:

In my opinion this is the most plausible explanation. In the absence of evidence of gun shot, and not finding some toxic agent I cannot see any other reason for the death of this condor.

Several days later both the Fresno Bee and Madera Daily Tribune conveyed Brunetti’s findings (15 June 1965). The Audubon Leader’s Conservation Guide for 15 July 1965 includes a short piece about the condor’s death and shows a photograph of the dead bird. This piece was, in turn, noted in the Fall 1965 issue of Scissortail, the newsletter of the Oklahoma Ornithological Society.

Curiously, I found the California Department of Fish and Game report by Oscar Brunetti in an online archive maintained by the University of Texas. As this report is a government document, I have included images of the typewritten (and nicely-yellowed) report in this post.


I recently discovered that this incident is mentioned in John K. Terres’ Flashing Wings: The Drama of Bird Flight (Doubleday, 1968).