A bird’s perspective

To tell the story of the California condor, some authors have stepped into the mind of a bird. This post looks at 5 examples.

The introduction of Pete Dunne’s The Wind Masters: The Lives of North American Birds of Prey (Houghton Mifflin 1995) describes the book:

In your hands are stories …. Like most stories, these are founded in truth (what a scientist might call facts), and from them readers will learn much about North America’s thirty nesting species of diurnal raptors and three vulture species.

But these accountings … have a life beyond the disciplined standards that distinguish scientific treatments.

In stories, Condors can dream, …

01a Dunne 1995 - Title

Dunne’s introduction also notes why his effort to reach a broad audience with information about the California condor is so important:

at the time of this writing, there are no nesting wild California Condors …

So it is fitting that Dunne’s chapter devoted to the California condor – the last in the book – tells the story of a captive female condor. He begins:

The adult condor half-opened a wing, exposing the silver lining within and the numbered white wing tag above. More like a young mother tending her young than a bird engaged in a daily routine, she reached down with her bill and began preening her outermost flight feathers.

As no artist is credited, I expect that this fine drawing is by the author:

01b Dunne 1995 - Illustration

In just 9 pages, Dunne provides a great deal of valuable information and some fine writing about the California condor.

Mark Rauzon’s The Last Condor (Marine Endeavors 1986) is a slim, illustrated book for a younger audience. This illustration (presumably by the author) provides an atypical view of a California condor:

02a Rauzon 1986 - Illustration a

Rauzon’s preface explains:

Today fewer than ten California condors fly free.

The story, which has a Native American theme, concerns a great adventure by the condor “Topa”.

He tilts his broad wings to catch the rising airs. How many times has he soared over these dark valleys? How many condors have done the same before him? Today, Topa flies for all condors. Will his majestic soaring no longer shadow the land he loves?

Other players in the story include Wren, Black Raven, and Gold Eagle.

On the last page we read that

Far and away, high above, a kettle of condors gather. Topa returns!!

Accompanying those words is this drawing:

02b Rauzon 1986 - Illustration b

Source of the Thunder: The Biography of a California Condor, by Roger Caras, is the most substantial of the bird-centric stories considered here (Little Brown 1970; reprinted in 1991 by the University of Nebraska Press). This book melds natural history, human history, and the environmental perspectives of its time. It is not a comforting read but it is thoughtful, valuable, and beautiful. Here is one paragraph that provides a sense of the book:

What they lacked in physical beauty they compensated for in importance. They were together one of eight pairs of their species on the planet capable of reproducing their kind in that year. They were mated for life and each alternate year would work valiantly to brood and raise a single young. They were affectionate with their chick and with each other. Theirs was an ideal life, except in their relationship with man. They did not kill to live but, rather, removed carrion from the landscape, thereby being part of Nature’s plan to keep things neat in her domain. They destroyed nothing, competed with few, and chose their homes in places far from the natural habitats of unnatural man. Still, they were treated as enemies and the attrition had reached a point where the death of a single bird or the failure of a single pair to successfully brood their egg was a staggering tragedy that shook the very stability of the species itself. The two birds that slept in the tree that night were two of the most valuable and important creatures on earth in any but a madman’s reckoning.

An excerpt from Source of the Thunder appeared in the November 1970 issue of Audubon magazine.

“The California Condor: California’s Largest Living Bird” by George Willett is identified as Los Angeles County Museum Leaflet Series – Science, No. 2 and dated 1950. The leaflet presents a story and, thanks to small print, a substantive one in less than 3 pages. Here’s a sample:

With the pleasant warmth of the ascending sun commencing to permeate his plumage, and with his stomach still full of venison from yesterday’s feed on the leavings of a not-too-hungry mountain lion, Gymnogyps was content. He was blissfully unconcerned with the fact that, although his ancestors ranged in numbers over much of the United States during the Pleistocene epoch, his species is now reduced to less than a hundred individuals … His need for companionship was entirely satisfied by the knowledge that his mate and their nearly two-year-old offspring were perched in another tree a hundred yards farther up the canyon.

Later, Willett refers to that offspring as, fittingly, “Gymnogyps, Jr.”

The story ends with this coda:

Here ends a cycle in the life history of the most magnificent of our birds since the great Teratornis of Pleistocene times. How soon Gymnogyps will follow Teratornis into extinction depends upon the protection it receives. Unfortunately, the efforts of conservationists are too often nullified by the ignorance or indifference of the man with a gun, who regards such a conspicuous bird only as a proper target upon which to demonstrate his marksmanship.

The leaflet includes 4 references, 3 of which are technical articles. I find these noteworthy given that the leaflet was apparently intended for a general audience of museum visitors.

Just as I was finishing this post, another story came to my attention: Loliki the California Condor by Inés Horovitz (Our Fellow Earthers 2020). Written by a scientist, this book for children is one of a series that imagines the lives of wild animals:

03a Horovitz 2018 - Tagline

The artwork by Sarai Vargas Velástegui is charming:

03b Horovitz 2018 - Illustration

Here is an excerpt that draws on the author’s expert understanding of evolution:

“Have you ever caught any animals, Mom?”

“No, dear. We don’t catch animals. We just find dead ones.”

“But I like to play to catch things, Mom. I will catch animals when I grow up.”

“You like to play that way because long, long time ago, our great, great, many times great grandparents were different from us and they hunted for their food. But us condors and vultures have changed over millions of years to just eat carcasses, dear. Our chicks still play that way because you are born with the need to learn to hunt but you won’t need that skill when you grow up. It’s OK to play that way, though, it’s fun, isn’t it?”

Loliki the California Condor is available electronically, and in English and Spanish.

An additional image from Pete Dunne’s The Wind Masters is shown in the post More black & white illustrations from books: 1944-1996. The cover illustration of Mark Rauzon’s The Last Condor is shown in the post Last. Roger Caras’s Source of the Thunder is one of the Essential books about the California condor. Illustrations by Charles Fracé shows a number of the wonderful drawings from Caras’s book.

For other (brief) examples of condor-centric fiction, see the posts Century-old books for younger children and Yet another early-20th-century poem.