In The Seven States of California: A Natural and Human History (Henry Holt, 1995), author Philip Fradkin writes of the California condor:
I have often wondered what the fascination was with this carrion-eating vulture that is related to the European griffin. There was, of course, size and rarity and all that ferocious blackness topped by a bare neck and ruby-red eyes. The condor was a military symbol, as well as a meal ticket for ornithologists.
For this post, I set aside Fradkin’s erroneous implication that the California condor and European griffin are especially related. I do not dispute his claim that condors are “ferocious”. And I ignore his negative comment about the ornithologists who have and continue work to prevent the condor’s extinction.
This post is about Fradkin’s observation (for which he offers no evidence) that the California condor is a “military symbol”.
Here is an advertisement for the “Curtiss Condor Bomber” from the 13 February 1928 issue of Aviation magazine:
The photo below, from the archives of a newspaper, shows one of these planes in flight:
Handwritten on the photo above are a date and time – “5-20-32 8-25 AM” – and a description – “Curtiss Condor in the High Sierras Calif.”
Below is a fully-opened oversize matchbook from “Condor Field”:
I am not sure what to make of that bird caricature on the matchbook’s front.
A 26 Feb 1942 article in the Los Angeles Times explains that Condor Field is a US Army training center for glider pilots. Located in southeastern California, it is the only “military glider school” in the country. During World War 2, gliders were deployed in Europe and Asia to silently carry troops and equipment into enemy territory.
Once the Condor Field matchbook was emptied, it became a postcard – an example of war-time resource conservation. Here’s that reverse side:
During the 1960s, the US Navy developed the AGM-53A Condor, an air-to-surface missile that was capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. I do not know if this patch is an original or a recent copy:
Boeing’s Condor is an unmanned test aircraft with a wingspan of 200 feet. This plane made its first flight in 1988. A coffee mug commemorates the project:
Condor Systems is a private company that provides technology to militaries. Here is an advertisement for the firm in the form of a key fob:
Finally, this is the logo for Condor Outdoor Products:
According to the company’s web page:
Condor Outdoor Products is a mirror to Mother Nature’s great avian. Working each and every day to make our warfighters the most efficient they can be in whatever task they take on at theater or home.
I do not see the connection between a bird and body armor, or any of Condor Outdoor Products’ other items. But I definitely see the logic behind naming large aircraft or a facility for training glider pilots after the condor.
None of the artifacts above can be definitively tied to the California or Andean condor. But given that these artifacts are all associated with companies and facilities in North America – some even in California – it is likely that the California condor was on the minds of at least a few of those who adopted the condor as a symbol.
So it is fair to say that Philip Fradkin is correct in claiming that the California condor is a military symbol. The artifacts shown here demonstrate that this has been the case since at least the 1920s.