Cyril S Robinson

During the 1930s-1950s, Cyril S Robinson made important contributions toward protecting the California condor. He left an invaluable record of the condor and publicly advocated on behalf of the species. This post presents an overview of Robinson and the condor.

The 1st published mention of Robinson and California condors that I have found is in a Los Angeles Times article from 16 October 1941: “Two Rare Condors Observed by Ranger in Pinehurst Area”. Robinson is not the ranger in the title but the article’s 2nd paragraph tells us that:

Extremely rare, condors have been studied intensively for years by Cyril S. Robinson of the Los Padres National Forest staff.

A few months later, on 5 January 1942, the Los Angeles Times published a single sentence under the headline “Condor Manual Released”:

Associate Forester Cyril S. Robinson of Los Padres National Forest has released “Notes on the California Condor” as a manual for a newly inaugurated system of Federal, State and county lookouts just established to record movements of America’s largest bird.

(Consider that this announcement was published less than a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor and at a time when there was considerable concern that California itself might be attacked.)

The 1st 2 paragraphs of the “condor manual” set the stage for Robinson’s report:

01 Robinson 1942 - title page

The 18-page report includes sections on the condor’s range, food, bathing, and other aspects of its natural history. There are also sections on human threats, protective measures, and plans for the future.

Robinson was a keen observer and willing to point out the wonderful, even in a government document. For example:

When alighting on tree tops, the condor seems clumsy compared with smaller birds. Before settingly down they “balance” repeatedly with the aid of their wings if the perch is small. Turning around in such circumstances is quite a serious affair – the bird literally uses everything – beak, claws, wing and tail.

Once settled, however, there is nothing so majestic and inspiring. The shoulders seem hunched high; the whole carriage expresses an old-world feeling; it always seems as if one has stepped back into a former geologic era.

Another example:

This unusually strong wing is perhaps the most beautiful of any bird. The writer remembers very clearly an experience with Ranger McCormick in 1936 at Big Pine Mountain. We had ridden along the crest of the divide against a strong wind – stopped for lunch under the lee of some high rocks. Afterward while lying down and watching some small clouds go sailing by, whipped by the wind, a shadow swiftly crossed my eyes. It was a condor. We lay still and presently three birds poised above us, their long necks twisting to see what we were. They were so close that we could see their large black eyes, count the prominent wing primaries, and note the color of the feet and legs….

The force of the wind was terrrific on top of a sheer crestline, at an elevation of 8,000 feet, yet the birds had perfect control of their flight at all times. The action of the broad tail feathers was noted – a twist down or to the right or left, and the immediate response in direction. There was almost no evident wing movement.

The report includes a proposed and scientifically-sound scheme for a California condor census: Dedicated observers located throughout condor habitat would be assigned to record numbers of condors sighted and the times of the sightings. The information would then be synthesized as Robinson explained with this example:

If observer A on May 10 at 3:00 p.m. counted 18 condors in the air, and observer B, 25 miles distant, counted 15 birds at the same hour, a total of 33 was assured.

Robinson goes on to note the lack of funding for such a census. But this approach was implemented in the early 1960s to conduct the 1st true census of California condors.

Robinson’s report includes 2 important maps. The 1st documents the condor’s range in 1939:

02 Robinson 1942 - map of flight zones

The 2nd map identifies fire lookouts available for condor observation:

03 Robinson 1942 - map of lookouts

These are excerpts from the report’s summary:

There is grave danger of extinction because of the peculiar habits and characteristics of the birds themselves. Mating for life, … laying but one egg, … their size that calls for space … – these are a few of the natural hazards.

Shooting and egg stealing are now perhaps the greatest risks, with disturbance always a serious contributing factor.

Publicity is of doubtful value. Indeed, it is questionable if the conservative support by some newspapers and magazines has not been offset by others that called attention to the value of an egg and the bird’s rarity, thus spurring on the curiousity and cupidty of those who care little for the preservation of the condor….

How to assure survival? With opportunity to collect and analyze facts, none of the problems surrounding the question are insurmountable….

Comprehensive study of any subject within such a huge area is an arduous task. This is one of the reasons that the progress has been slow. Moreover, to accomplish a really satisfactory account of the status of the California Condor, very much more time and study are essential.

(Fortunately, that “really satisfactory account” would be provided by Carl Koford within a decade.)

In the 1950s, 2 letters to the editor by Robinson were published by the Los Angeles Times (this appears to have been after the end of his government service).

The 1st letter was a response to “California Oil News” in the 29 January 1950 issue of the Los Angeles Times. Here’s an excerpt from this item by Howard Kegley:

Oil operators who are looking forward to participation in the opening of what may prove to be California’s next great oil reserve are considerably concerned by reports the Bureau of Land Management in Washington contemplates creation of a Condor reserve … to encompass at least 40 square miles.

Robinson’s detailed response was published under the headline “A Condor Refuge Preferred to More Oil Exploitation” on 2 February 1950. These are excerpts:

If the oil operators are concerned, there are many more other people who are deeply moved and sincerely hopeful that this particular territory may be preserved for posterity and the California condor in particular.

The area is … the last refuge of the condor, the largest bird in North America.

The condor … is not adaptable to invasion by humans …

Many of us prefer that the government retain some large areas of natural wild country in its primitive state for the inexpensive enjoyment of the general public rather than for the financial gains of a comparative few who can seek oil elsewhere….

One thing is sure, the fate of these gigantic silent birds is at stake.

The 2nd letter by Robinson followed a letter by H M Hill that was published in the Los Angeles Times on 23 February 1953 under the headline “Move to Cage Condors Hit by Wildlife Man”. Hill’s letter reads, in part:

… the thought of forever consigning the California condor to an iron cage … is more than saddening.

Robinson’s support for Hill’s views were published as “Condor Comment” on 3 March 1953. This letter included these words:

… it is hard to understand why the U.S. Forest Service with the State Fish and Game Commission would sanction such an experiment [to captive breed condors]; especially so after the extraordinary efforts made to preserve both the birds and their habitat. It is more likely, however, that the Forest Service has not been consulted.

In any event the success of the project … seems to me quite doubtful …

To capture and cage Old Gymnogyps, master of the air, who has felt the utmost in freedom, seems as unnecessary as the unfortunate hawks and eagles one sees brooding their life away in confinement.

Cyril S Robinson’s contributions to humans’ understanding of the California condor and his arguments for protecting the California condor speak for themselves. All who cherish the California condor today are in debt to this intelligent, productive, and caring government official.

To see the excellent frontispiece from Robinson’s report, view the post Black & white illustrations from government publications.

For more on counting condors, see Census – count – survey.

To read more excerpts from published letters to newspaper editors about the condor, start with Letters to the editor of the Los Angeles Times: late 1990s.

For another early example of a government official who cared deeply about the California condor, see Walter Fry.