Rattlesnake

Nonsense stories about the California condor were not uncommon in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Here’s one such story that was repeatedly published over the course of nearly 25 years.

I previously noted a 1 June 1919 article in the Sunday Times of London titled “Duel in the Air”. Here is a fuller excerpt from this article:

While exploring the Cocopah Mountains of Lower California a part of an American exploring mission recently witnessed a duel to the death between a California vulture and a rattlesnake.

The big bird had seized the snake behind the head and was struggling upward with its writhing deadly burden. The snake’s captor seemed aware that its victim was dangerous. The burden was heavy, as the reptile was nearly 5 ft. in length.

The snake seemed to be squirming from its captor’s talons – at least, sufficiently to enable it to strike. Its triangular head was seen to recoil and dart at the mass of feathers.

… with a shriek the vulture dropped it prey. The bird was probably 200 ft. or so above the observers. The astonished man was then treated to a spectacle seldom seen. Few birds but a vulture could accomplish such a feat.

The instant the snake escaped from the bird’s clutches it dropped earthward like a shot; and like a shot the bird dropped after it, catching it in midair … the snake ceased to wriggle, and the vulture soared away to a mountain peak to devour its hard-earned meal. That the snake did not bite the vulture and cause its death can only be explained by the fact that the thick feathers probably protected the flesh from the reptile’s fangs.

The oldest version of this story that I have seen is in the 26 May 1895 New York Times. A substantial article on natural history, “Some Rare Western Birds”, introduces the rattlesnake story with notes about the California condor:

Among other birds making their last stand in the Cocopah Mountains before the advance of man is one of noble size – a bird that, as a strong, powerful, and graceful flier, is the peer of American birds. It is the California vulture. In size it is larger than the South American condor – that king of birds in the cloud-touching Andes. Few of these birds are left in California … It has been remarked that the California vulture is a cowardly bird.

The article then goes on to tell the rattlesnake story as evidence that the “cowardly” description is incorrect. Most of the text in the 1895 article is identical to that in the 1919 Sunday Times version. An evocative sentence that was only in the New York Times article is:

The great pinions of the vulture waved rapidly as it slowly ascended from the mountain mesa.

Also, according to the New York Times, the aerial condor-rattlesnake pas de deux took place 500 feet above the witnesses, not 200 feet as reported in the Sunday Times.

A week after the New York Times story was published, the story appeared in the Chicago Tribune under the headline “Birds of the Desert” (2 June 1895).

Five years passed …

The 12 July 1900 issue of Youth’s Companion magazine dispensed with the natural history of western/desert birds and quickly got to the sensational part in a short item titled “Vulture and Rattlesnake”. About 2 weeks later (27 July 1900), a British newspaper, the Manchester Weekly Times published “Vulture and Rattlesnake”. Then a few months later (7 December 1900), the piece ran in the Amador Ledger of Jackson, California. The title was now “Vultures and Rattlesnakes” even though the story involved only one of each. The Amador Ledger credited Youth’s Companion for the story.

Four years passed …

In May 1904, the magazine Amateur Naturalist reprinted the story as “A Vulture and Rattlesnake”, also crediting Youth’s Companion.

Five more years passed …

The Amador Ledger published the story again on 24 September 1909 and 14 January 1910. In both cases the title was “Vulture and Rattler”. These versions began:

An odd battle between a California vulture and a rattlesnake was witnessed …

(I like the “rattler” in the title, a shorthand that would work in the Amador Ledger but might not in the New York Times.)

Then nearly a decade passed before the Sunday Times published the version that started this post.

I expect that the story was published many more times than I have noted above.

In short, the premises of the story are false. California condors do not kill live prey (with extremely rare and notable exceptions). California condors are not capable of gripping with their feet. All the details in the story that follow from those premises are nonsense.

So how did the story get started? The 1895 New York Times article provided accurate back story:

Dr. Edgar A. Mearns, United States Army, is an ardent naturalist…. During the trip of the International Boundary Commission, from El Paso, Texas, across the burning deserts of New-Mexico, Arizona, and California – a trip of nearly three years’ duration – Dr. Mearns was the naturalist of the expedition. The chief work of the commission was to mark the Mexican boundary line with substantial monuments. But one of the most interesting features of the expedition was the department in charge of Dr. Mearns. He was the representative of the Smithsonian Institution, charged with collecting specimens of birds and mammals, many of which were absolutely new to scientists.

The naturalist worked earnestly and enthusiastically and collected nearly 20,000 specimens of curious life, records of which will enlighten the world at no distant day. Dozens of soldiers and mules helped Dr. Mearns in this arduous work of collecting. Indians and Mexicans were pressed into the service of Uncle Sam’s bird collector, and queer experiences they had at times. Once the daring naturalist journeyed off into the dreary, desolate Cocopah Mountains of Lower California, that land of barren, bleak, volcanic mystery, so little know by the white man, yet so full of charm to the naturalist and explorer….

The International Boundary Commission, which included members from the USA and Mexico, conducted its survey during 1891-1894. So the 1895 New York Times article was timely (and the Sunday Times’ 1919 reference to the “recent” expedition was decades late).

All of the original field notebooks, correspondence, reports, etc., concerning the work of Mearns and his colleagues along the USA-Mexico border are in the archives of the Smithsonian Institution. They have not been digitized. Perhaps there lies some observation that was passed from one person to the next and became the fanciful story of the condor and the rattlesnake. Or, maybe the story was just made up by a reporter who needed to write an exciting story. Or, maybe there is another explanation.

The previous post referred to above was The Times (of London): 1919-2007.