A California Condor Egg In Russia?

Sanford R. "Sandy" Wilbur
June 2009

It all started for me in June 2008, while I was idly "surfing" the Internet, looking for historical references to California condors. On a webpage devoted to birding links in Napa County, California, there was the following comment:

"Best Bird [for Napa County]: Snow Bunting (19 Nov-3 Dec 1977 Monticello Dam)
Close second: nesting California Condor (egg taken 16 Aug 1845)"

The condor report was news to me, and I've been compiling historical records of condors since 1969. And it was important news: if it was, in fact, an authentic record, it would be the earliest known collection of a California condor egg (earlier by 14 years than any other). It would also be the first confirmed nesting record north of Santa Cruz, California, some 100 air miles south of Napa County.

I wrote to the author of the website (twice), but he never responded. I tried several of the local Napa County birders, but could obtain no information. I found that the record was cited in Hermann Heinzel's "Birds of Napa County" (Heyday Books, Berkeley, CA 2006), in which he wrote:

"An egg of this magnificent bird [California condor] was taken from a nest in Napa County in 1845 and is now in a museum in Russia."

However, when I finally contacted Mr. Heinzel (in Gers, France) he told me he had merely copied the information from "Breeding Birds of Napa County, California" (Napa-Solano Audubon Society, Vallejo, CA 2003). This book gave the specific date cited in the first website I visited, but little else:

"There is one historical nesting record for the California Condor - an egg taken August 16, 1845, which now resides in a Russian museum."

I queried the authors of the breeding atlas, but they have so far been unable to relocate the record that they were citing.

My odyssey next took me to the Napa County Historical Society, where a helpful volunteer was able to tell me a little more:

"There is a record that a condor egg was collected in Napa on August 16, 1845 by the assistant of an E. I. Schrader."

Unfortunately, the Historical Society did not have a source for that information. I contacted a number of my oologist acquaintances in the United States and Russia, but no one knew of any California condor egg in Russia, now or in the past. At the end of a year of pursuing this elusive egg, I have only slightly more information than was given in the one-liner on the Napa birding website.

Was a California condor egg collected in Napa County? Certainly, having such a specific collection date suggests a real event. Also, attributing the egg collection to "the assistant of an E. I. Schrader" is compelling. Schrader was at the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, Russia, and one of his assistants - Ivan Gavrilovich Voznesenski - collected a number of California condors near (perhaps in) Napa County in 1840-1841. But, there are also some problems with the data:

(1) Most California condor eggs are laid in February and March, and finding an unhatched condor egg in mid-August would be most unusual. I could have been a very late re-nesting or, more likely, an old egg abandoned by the parent birds earlier in the year. Since we don't know the circumstances of finding the egg, speculation isn't very helpful.

(2) The Russians abandoned Fort Ross and ceased almost all of their activities in California in 1841. It is highly unlikely that an assistant to E. I. Schrader was in California in 1845.

California condors were found in Napa County in 1845; they almost certainly nested there. If this is an authentic record, it would be wonderful to add it to the official condor record. If you know anything about this reported egg, if you know the source of the record, or if you have any suggestions about who in Russia or elsewhere might know about the egg, I'd appreciate hearing from you.

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Below are two of Voznesenski's condors in Russia, collected in or near Napa County about 1840. Was there an egg collected, also?


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Sanford Wilbur 2021