Captive California Condors

[The following was originally published as a chapter in: "Nine Feet from Tip to Tip: the California Condor through History." (Gresham, Oregon: Symbios Books, 2012). If you would like a free copy (PDF) of the entire book, send me an e-mail.]

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Through the 1860s and 1870s, shooting for sport or curiosity continued to be the main source of California condor mortality. Two-thirds of the known losses during that twenty year period were random shooting deaths. Demand for condor specimens for museums and private collections was growing, but was not yet a major factor. A new interest was for live condors to display in public zoos. Collecting for zoos would reach its peak after 1900, but began during this period.

The earliest instances of confined condors were not for public display, however, but more for the fun of it. One wouldn't think that a giant carrion-eating vulture would be a logical choice for a pet, but apparently the attraction of having one was strong.

The first record I found was from 1854. Near the American River in El Dorado County, California, Alonzo Winship and Jesse Millikan surprised a roosting condor, threw a shovel at it, and broke its wing. A spirited pursuit followed, as related by Mrs. Millikan 46 years later [1]:

"The condor, thus rudely disturbed, jumped from its perch, and running under the flume, started down the mountain toward the American River with Mr. Winship following closely after. The condor's broken wing impeded its progress, and finding its pursuer was gaining upon it, it turned savagely upon him and he was compelled to take refuge on a granite boulder just out of its reach, realizing he had a dangerous enemy."

Millikan came to Winship's rescue, and between them they managed to subdue the injured condor. They set and bandaged its broken wing, then "fastened a trace chain to one leg, securing the other end to a post..." The owners of a nearby slaughterhouse wanted the bird, so "with much difficulty the bird was once again secured, taken down the mountain and turned loose in the stockade of the corral..." The condor lived there for some unstated time, then disappeared. "A week later, a miner prospecting on the river bank found it more dead than alive from starvation, as its wing was not yet thoroughly healed. All the bird's fight was gone, and the miner, without the slightest difficult, conveyed it back to the stockade, where it was well fed and soon regained its former ferocity. Finally during the second autumn, it disappeared for good and they supposed it had gone south."

That same autumn of 1854, at Redwoods (Contra Costa County, California), a teamster brought a live condor to James Lamson. It had been lassoed near a cow carcass, apparently unable to fly ("though it ran with considerable fleetness") after gorging itself on beef. Lamson had a small menagerie at his camp, and he might have intended to study the behavior of the condor. It was not to be, as he reported three days later:

"While cleaning out the cages, one of my foxes -- I had six at this time -- slipped out and escaped to the woods, and having carelessly left the door of the cage unfastened, another one soon followed. As further illustration of the fact that 'When sorrows come, they come not as single spies, but in batallions,' my vulture died today, having probably been wounded in his capture. Still further, a third fox managed to draw a nail that had fastened his door and took French leave in the night” [2].

Between 1855 and 1940, I found records of 17 other captures of condors, apparently just for the novelty of catching and keeping a big bird. To this number can be added several more instances of sick or injured birds being taken into captivity, presumably to try and rehabilitate them. Like James Lamson's bird, most condors that weren't sick or injured were lassoed or otherwise captured by hand at animal carcasses, after the condors had fed heavily and could not immediately get airborne. A few condors were removed from their nests while still too young to fly.

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Just as dead condors were popular news fodder, live condors were a novelty that couldn't be passed up. Take for example this story from Sacramento in 1857.

"Mr. Sutton, of the Western Hotel, corner of K and 10th streets, was presented a few days since with a young vulture, which he placed in the yard of his establishment. In order that our readers may estimate the size and powers of the bird, we give his dimensions as follows: Length of wings from tip to tip, about 10 feet 6 inches; length of head and beak, 7 inches; length of claws, from 7 to 9 inches. He is fed regularly and literally on raw heads and bloody bones, and can clean a skull or bone in the most approved style. Efforts have been made to induce several dogs to take hold of him, but his competitors have always respectfully declined. Sutton's dog (which has never been whipped) declined having anything to do with him, except to gaze and admire his stalwart proportions. The dog in question is the same that nursed a brood of chickens, and would permit no one to molest them. The vulture was caught on Mrs. Harrold's ranch, near this city” [3].

With a few notable exceptions, most condors taken by individuals lived only a few days or a few weeks after capture. Some were casualties of their injuries or illness; cause of death for most went unrecorded. Some causes were obvious:

"[A California vulture was] brought alive to Mr. [Thomas] Shooter. It seemed at times to be troubled with a kind of asthma, which trouble seemed to increase, for it appeared to be a local complaint. A month later Mr. Sbooter's assistant trying, alone, to move this powerful bird from one cage to another, was severely bitten, and in trying to save a finger being bitten off, broke the bird's neck. The bird's skin was mounted and is now at the Chicago exhibition” [4].

Other deaths were documented, but still leave interesting questions; for example:

"A San Diego (Cal.) man caught a fine specimen of the California vulture and gave it to the proprietor of a small menagerie to keep for him. In the menagerie was a pet coon, and the vulture was placed in a tree above the box in which the coon was kept. In the morning, fur and feathers marked the spot, the vulture lay on its back, claws up, stiff in death, and the coon lay on his side still alive, but in a very dilapidated condition. The expression on his face suggested the remark attributed to the parrot after a somewhat similar experience with a monkey” [5].

Certainly the most famous condor to live only a short time in captivity was that lassoed by one of the employees of Richard Gird, famous Arizona miner, southern California agriculturalist, and founder of the town of Chino, California [6]. The story of Gird's condor ran in dozens (perhaps hundreds?) of newspapers in the United States and abroad, in spectacular detail.

"These birds are among the largest, if not the largest species that navigate the air. They have become nearly extinct in California, and to see one, much more to capture one, is a great rarity. This one is young, yet it stands about six feet high and has a wing expansion of ten feet. It is very broad in the breast and back, and has powerful beak and talons... It is said that these birds will fly twenty miles, straight as an arrow's course to a carcass, and will kill and devour a deer in very short order” [7].

"Richard Gird's ranch Superintendent has captured a rare prize in the hills south of here in the shape of a California vulture. It had just devoured a cow, and was unable to fly, and was lassoed and brought to Mr. Gird's stables. For tip to tip the wings expand twelve feet, and the bird stands about six feet high and weighs over 100 pounds. Mr. Gird says a vulture will fly twenty miles as straight as an arrow to a carcass, and easily kills cattle and deer, having a broad breast and back and powerful beak and talons”[8].

"A bird of prey as tall as a man! Such is the prize just captured by the superintendent of Richard Gird's ranch in the hills south of Chino, San Bernardino county, Cal. The prisoner is a magnificent specimen of the California vulture, without doubt the largest ever taken captive. From the crown of its ferocious-looking, red-wattled head to its strong, scaly talons it measures six feet. Its plucky captor is an inch or two shorter in his cowhide boots. The man has the advantage in weight, for the bird weighs 100 pounds. Still, that is a fair fighting weight to carry through the rarified upper air. In order to accomplish this feat the vulture is provided with wings that have a spread of twelve feet. Withal the ornithologists who have seen it say that it is merely a youngster” [9].

Mr. Gird intended to convert this alleged 100 pound, six feet tall condor with twelve foot wings (!!) "into an affectionate and interesting household pet.” Unfortunately, although the news story lived to appear and reappear in papers across the country for at least three months after the capture, the condor did not. As reported in the local newspaper (but apparently nowhere else):

"The account of the vulture captured on the ranch a couple of weeks ago has created quite a sensation, having appeared in the Eastern newspapers and being commented on quite generally. Many people have driven to Chino to see the huge bird, which unfortunately died a few days after it was captured” [10].

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The first captive California condor to excite the scientists as well as the general public was "Ben Butler." Taken from the mountains of Monterey County, California, when still a nestling, Ben lived in the San Jose area aviary of Frank H. Holmes from July 1896 to "his" (I don't think sex was ever determined) death in early 1901 [11]. Various ornithologists came to observe the big bird, including well-known Bay Area bird enthusiasts Otto Emerson and Donald Cohen [12]. In a unique tribute, Mrs. Holmes and her "pet" earned a story that ran to portions of five columns (with a picture) in the "women's section" of the San Francisco Chronicle. Here is a portion of the report [13].

"Ladies with a penchant for sweetly warbling canary birds would look with a sort of awe on the big, powerful playfellow which Mrs. Frank H. Holmes of Berryessa, Cal., thinks is a lovely, intelligent creature, and which she is not afraid to handle.

"Of all the strange pets which man has chosen from the animal creation as a subject for amusement and study, surely none, among the birds, at least, could be more outre than a California condor...."

"'I am not at all afraid of this big fellow,' said Mrs. Holmes; 'In fact, we are old friends, and he will come shuffling up to me in his queer way to be fed when he sees me. I was a little shy about approaching such a big creature at first, but he soon came to know me. Now we have frolics together sometimes. Although some persons say he is an ugly, fierce-looking pet to have, I am very fond of him, and he is real good-natured, and, though you would scarcely believe it, he is almost as playful in his big, lumbering way as a kitten.'

"'If he is annoyed about anything he will hiss like a goose, raising the ruff about his neck at the same time. He seems to like me better than anybody else, and when I enter his cage he always flies down from his perch and comes rubbing up against me like a kitten.'

"When the condor was a young bird and unable to fly he was allowed to roam about the yard. One of his favorite amusements was to go wading in the creek near the house, where he would bathe, afterward standing in the sun with widespread wings until dry. His attention is attracted at once to any small and bright object, and when Mr. Holmes was about to photograph him the rubber bulb of the camera shutter proved such an irresistible attraction that it was necessary to maintain a sharp watch to prevent its being 'punctured' during the operation."

Frank Holmes reportedly took many photos of "Ben Butler," but only two are known to have been printed for the public to see. I searched for Holmes photos and notes in the 1970s, but could only determine that copies might have gone to the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. If they did, they were probably destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire. Recently, I learned of a letter written by Holmes to the Smithsonian Institution in 1898, in which he said [14]: "I will also mail you a series of photos of a live condor in my possession, which may furnish some characteristic attitudes to assist in mounting [the condor skins]." If the photos were sent, they cannot be located in Smithsonian files. Rollo Beck, a neighbor of Holmes, sent some of the Ben Butler photos to William Brewster in Cambridge, Massachusetts, accompanying condor skins Brewster had purchased from him. The Beck-Brewster correspondence survives in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, but the photos are not locatable.

It is a reasonable assumption that "Ben Butler" was saved as a mount or study skin after "his" death, but I haven't located the specimen. Frank Holmes condors are in the U. S. National Museum and the American Museum of Natural History (New York City), but "Ben" is not identifiable among them.

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Not long after the short-term captives of 1854, and 40 years before "Ben Butler," live California condors made their first public appearances, as members of James Capen "Grizzly" Adams' "Pacific Museum." Adams, famous worldwide for his exploits with grizzly bears, brought his menagerie of live West Coast animals to San Francisco in the winter of 1855-1856 [15]. In addition to a dozen or so live grizzlies, the "Museum" reportedly included live wolves, mountain lions, bison, elk, a sea lion, and a variety of birds [16]. Among the birds were at least two California condors [17].

I haven't been able to determine where, when and how Grizzly Adams procured his condors. By his own account, he killed one condor near the Nevada-California border north of Mono Lake in May or June 1854 [18], but I haven't found any records of him capturing condors alive. His "Pacific Museum" had one living condor in March 1857 ("a large vulture worth seeing" [19]), and possibly the same one in June 1859 ("a fine living specimen of this bird, and the only captive of its kind we know of" [20]. In June 1860, Adams had two condors in his show.

Other than acknowledgments that the Pacific Museum did include live California condors, I've found only one specific reference to one of them [21]: "Adams, the Museum man, while removing the last cage of his animals to the Old Mechanic' Institute Pavilion yesterday, experienced the kind of a bite which a vulture, or what is usually called the California condor, can inflict. This bird in some manner got loose, and as Adams caught him, it took a large piece of flesh, about the size of a thumb, out of the left hand. The old man seems destined to be eaten up alive by degrees."

The Pacific Museum remained in San Francisco until the winter of 1859-1860, when Adams made his decision to move his menagerie to New York [22]: "In the course of a few months, the people of New York, and the Atlantic States generally, will have an exhibition destined to excite great attention amongst them. This is the collection of wild animals of California, Oregon, Washington and Utah, gathered by Mr. Adams, and known as the Pacific Museum. It is proposed to ship the entire museum, in a short time, and Adams himself, the curiosity of all, will go with it…"

In New York, Adams formed a partnership with the showman, P. T. Barnum, and the California Menagerie (as the Pacific Museum had been renamed) was exhibited in a large canvas tent at Broadway and Thirteenth Street. The show ran through the summer of 1860. Adams died 25 October 1860, the cumulative result of repeated injuries inflicted by his bears, and soon after Barnum reported that he sold most of the animals [23]. However, there are conflicting accounts [24]: "The California Menagerie, recently under the management of 'Grizzly Adams,' whose sudden death was recently recorded, has been re-organized by Barnum, and shipped to Havana, where it is to be exhibited under the management of Colonel Wood. As the collection is perfectly unique, Barnum contemplates shipping them to England when their Cuban term is ended. An old California trapper will be the successor of 'Grizzly Adams' in the management of the bears." The Menagerie had, in fact, been shipped to Havana in mid-October 1860 [25], and returned to New York 25 January 1861 [26]. I have found no specific mention of condors after May 1860, so I don't know if they made the trip to Havana, and don't know what eventually happened to them. Barnum did eventually sell many of Adams' animals, and he lost many of his artifacts in structure fires. Adams' bears continued to be exhibited as part of a traveling menagerie for a number of years after 1861.

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The first condor to reach a public zoo was the one supplied by Dr. Colbert Canfield to the Zoological Society of London in 1866 [Chapter 10]. The first live condors in a public institution in the United States were not acquired until August 1896, when two five-month old condors were delivered to the Philadelphia (Pennsylvania) Zoological Garden. These young birds were taken from nests in Monterey County, California, by Wallace Mathers (collector of a number of condor eggs: Chapter 16), and delivery to the Zoo was facilitated by Capt. Charles Bendire of the U. S. National Museum [27]. According to Philadelphia Zoo records, the Zoo paid $50 apiece for them. One condor lived two years, the other four and a half years [28]. Cause of death was not determined in either case.

Both Philadelphia condors were still alive when a third nestling condor was obtained, destined for a semi-public facility. After killing an adult condor near Santa Monica, California, in August 1898, Harry G. Rising discovered that there was a five-month old, nearly fledged condor near its nest. He captured the young bird, and kept it for several months [29]. He sold it to the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers at Sawtelle, California, where "Dewey," as the soldiers named it, lived for a number of years with a menagerie that included "28 head of horses, 100 sheep, 800 head of hogs and 700 chickens. The menagerie consists of 7 monkeys, 12 ground squirrels, 1 gray squirrel, 1 California vulture, 1 gray eagle, 1 parrot and 100 canaries” [30]." According to W. Lee Chambers: The bird thrived and in about two years assumed its full growth. It was confined in a cage large enough for it to fly from a high perch to the ground below and became quite a pet of the old soldiers. A short time ago [February 1903] it suddenly sickened without any apparent cause, and died; although all the medical skill at the Home attempted to cure it... The bird gradually became so weak that it could scarcely stand. He is now mounted and adorns a prominent place in the Home library” [31].

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Beginning in 1900, the demand for live condors increased, and in the next ten years eleven California condors were procured for zoos. The National Zoo (Washington, D. C.) received six, the Bronx Zoo (New York) four, and the Golden Gate Park Aviary (San Francisco) one. Only one of the zoo condors lived less than a year; four lived one to five years; and three lived seven to 10 years. The other three, all at the National Zoo, survived 36, 39 and 45 years in captivity. William B. Whitaker, a rancher and bee keeper from Piru, Ventura County, California, was the party responsible for procuring at least six (and almost certainly seven) of the 11 captives. The other four were acquired from individuals in Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Los Angeles counties.

Acquiring a live California condor was not an easy task. Even when the species was still relatively common, nests were difficult to locate. Finding a nest site, assuring it was active, watching the area until sure there was a young condor in the nest, extracting the youngster safely from its precarious location, getting it back to "civilization," then shipping it to the other side of the continent: the process involved considerable time on the part of the collectors, and a great deal of luck [32]. William T. Hornaday, Bronx Zoo curator of birds, described the complications in a newspaper interview [33]:

"Five years ago, when I was consumed with the desire to obtain a California condor, I broke my usual practice [of waiting until a bird was offered to me] and sent an order for one to a man who lives in the mountains of the southern part of the State, where is the habitat of this, the rarest and largest of North American birds of prey. How long do you think I had to wait before I received word that a young condor, taken from the nest, was on its way to me? Just a shade over four years. And I considered myself exceedingly lucky."

One of the Bronx Zoo condors, circa 1906. New York Zoological Society photo, courtesy William G. Conway.

Hornaday's first California condor was reportedly taken from its nest by "several small boys," held at a San Luis Obispo County ranch for some time, then shipped by rail from San Francisco to New York, arriving there in mid-March 1905. Named "Search Me" by one news reporter (and "Sierra" by the same or another reporter two years later, although neither name appears anywhere else), he was given a memorable welcome by the press [34].

"With an aggressive sweep of his five-inch beak and a stretch of his fine wings that measured something like ten feet, Search Me, the first California condor ever brought alive to New York, and a baby type of the rarest bird of prey in North America, climbed on his perch at the New York Zoological Gardens yesterday afternoon and clamored for food.

"Search Me, like all healthy infants, was hungry. All he had had to eat since he left his mountain home, in Southern California, ten days ago, were 120 luscious pork chops. And because his transcontinental trip had been rushed by an over-zealous ornithologist, who wanted to bring a live American bird instead of a dead one for New Yorkers to admire, the bird arrived in this city twelve hours ahead of time, before his hotel accommodations were ready for him.

"The astonished condor was met at the Grand Central Station by Director W. T. Hornaday and two assistants, who were profuse in their apologies for being 'taken unawares,' so to speak. The bird of prey listened to them in reserved, not to say sulky, silence. He never opened his lips -- or rather his beak -- while he was hoisted on a wagon and taken for a long drive through the Bronx to his future home. It was only when he was pushed into the Aquatic House that the California condor gave vent to his pent-up indignation. The language the fierce bird used was intelligible only to Director Hornaday, who is an expert on condors and such things. A liberal translation by Mr. Hornaday reads something like this:

"'To put me -- me -- a bird that soars to the skies; a bird born and bred in the crags of cliffs that the hardiest mountaineers dare not scale, into a cage with common ducks and pelicans! Think of it! Ducks are my abomination. We do not have them at home. They can't soar worth a cent. Ugh!'

"Director Hornaday explained to his distinguished guest that his quarters in the duck house were only temporary. An exclusive perch in the big wire aviary was reserved for him, where he can plume himself to his heart's content when the weather gets warmer. But at present, considering the chilly weather and the warm climate from which the bird came, the steam-heated duck house is perhaps more comfortable."

But there was apparent intrigue involved with the condor; the Pacific Coast Forest, Fish and Game Association accused Hornaday of stealing their bird. As reported in a California news story [35]:

"Who will get the condor? This is the question which is at present worrying the members of the Pacific Coast Forest, Fish and Game Association. R. E. Follett, who was at one time associated with the organization has the condor, and the association says that it has a prior claim on the bird.

"It all happened this way. A magnificent California condor was captured by a small boy, or, rather, several small boys, in the mountains some forty miles from Santa Maria, in San Luis Obispo county. The birds measures eleven feet from tip to tip and would have made a valuable acquisition to the exhibit. C. J. Russell, a prominent ranchero in San Luis Obispo county was commissioned to secure the bird, and he did. He drove out to the place and paid a deposit on the bird. He was not, however, satisfied, and so made a second trip, intending to pay for the bird and ship it to the city. When he got to his destination he found to his great amazement that the bird was gone. It had been sold to a man from San Francisco for $67.50 who, they say, gave the name of Fowler, and it was intended either for the Golden Gate Park or the Chutes [an amusement park in San Francisco].

"Mr. Russell immediately wrote to Dr. d'Evelyn, the chairman of the birds and game committee, who started to find out where the bird had gone. He learned from the Wells Fargo people that the condor had arrived this morning and that it had been consigned to R. R. Follett. When Folett left here he had said he was going on a trip to Santa Barbara to pay a call on President Ripley of the Santa Fe, and now it is said that Follett went straight to Santa Maria, secured the bird and shipped it off to New York. As the bird's fare is only paid as far as Ogden, it is thought likely that the association will be able to get the great bird and exhibit it in due time at the Pavilion."

The condor was not stopped in Utah, but the Association continued to pursue the alleged "theft" of the bird. Frederick W. D'Evelyn, the Association's chairman of the Committee on Birds and Game, wrote to the New York papers [36].

"To the Editor of The Sun--Sir: I am indebted to a recent issue of your paper for certain valuable information, namely, the final destination of a specimen of the California condor, taken east by a gentleman recently in the employment of the above association but discharged therefrom for cause. I have tried to locate the condor, as it was the property of our association and removed from our custody without our knowledge. I have informed a Mr. Hornaday in New York to that effect as from telegram I saw in San Francisco it was presumed to be the consignee, but this he denied.

"Several months ago I had communicated with our agent at Santa Maria, Cal., who ultimately purchased the bird for our association. It was after this had been done that Mr. Follett obtained the possession of it, as the seller's friend states, by representing himself as an agent of your local park or zoo. Any information Mr. Follett gained of this specimen was while he was in the employment of the association. It took a long persuasion and by forcing a correspondence to convince the simple herder, the original owner of the bird, that he (Follett) was the rightful purchaser.

"Had our agent in Santa Maria telegraphed the abduction of our property instead of writing to us the condor would never have left California.

"These are simple facts, and now, when the final location of the bird is known, we shall take other measures to expose the undue ambition of a 'Naturalist from the East,' an ambition which could easily and truthfully be called by a more correct and less complimentary title. We have all the necessary data to institute proceedings."

A reporter from The Sun took the story to Hornaday, and included Hornaday's response in the news story with D'Evelyn's allegation:

"When this letter was shown to William T. Hornaday, the director of the Bronx zoo, he remarked, as soon as he saw the letterhead, that he could guess the contents.

"'Those Frisco people are trying to get a rise out of us,' he added. 'I can best reply to the charges contained in the letter by telling how we came to get the condor which recently arrived and which is now in one of the ostrich cages, doing very well.

"'C. K. Worthen, an animal dealer of Warsaw, Ill., wrote to me in the winter that one of his collectors had located a condor which could be had for $100. I wrote him that we would take the bird, but that it must not be delivered until the weather became milder. This acceptance Mr. Worthen transmitted to his collector in southern California, a man named [Arthur] Wilcox, instructing him to hold the bird until spring.

"'Meanwhile the Mr. Follett referred to in the letter wrote to me reporting on efforts he had been making to get certain kinds of animals for our zoo and asked if there was anything we wanted him to do. He added that he was coming East in a few weeks, and I told him to get the condor and bring it. At the same time I wrote to Mr. Worthen to telegraph to Follett the name of the man who had the condor. Follett had left the service of the Pacific Coast Forest, Fish and Game Association, but his mail and telegrams were still received at its office.

"'I am informed that the telegram was opened at the office of the association and held there for two days before it reached Follett. Moreover, this was the first intimation the association had of the condor's existence, but it set out to get the bird.

"'The condor was not then in the possession of Wilcox, Worthen's collector, but was still held by a boy, the son of a ranchman. Along came an agent of the association and offered the boy $45 for it and the boy agreed to sell. He did not deliver it, however, and when Mr. Follett arrived and offered $65 he got the bird and a bill of sale.

"'So we have the condor and feel entitled to it, because if Mr. Follett's telegram or letter had not been opened the San Francisco association would never have heard of the bird.'"

The reporter gave the condor what turned out to be the last word on the subject:

"Mr. Condor, who was found preening himself in the bird house, said that he had heard of the row over him and was quite chesty.

"'I feel like the Equitable surplus [37],' he added, for condors have a rare turn of humor as well as of speed."

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The Zoo's "victory" was short-lived because their first California condor died a year and a half later, the result of swallowing a rubber band [38]. Curator Hornaday didn't have to wait four years for a replacement, however; he already had one on hand. In September 1906, William L. Finley had sold to the Zoo "General," who thanks to the writings and lectures of Finley, was destined to become the best-known California condor in the world.

Finley and his photographer partner, Herman T. Bohlman, on 10 March 1906 near Pasadena, California, had discovered a condor nest with one egg in it. They kept the nesting pair of condors under observation until the egg hatched 22 March, then regularly photographed the young condor into early July. By then, the young condor they had named "General" was two-thirds grown, and on 6 July it was taken from its nest and transported to Finley's home in Portland, Oregon. "General" stayed in Oregon until late September 1906, then was sold to the New York Zoological Park [39].

"General" survived until 1916, then died of undocumented causes. Once in the zoo, the condor's life was unremarkable, but Finley kept interest alive with many popular articles in magazines and newspapers, and the excellent condor photographs taken by Herman Bohlman remain some of the best ever produced [40]. Finley apparently saw "General" only twice after "he" [41] was taken to New York, the last time in December 1908 [42].

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Between 1903 and 1939, the National Zoological Park (Washington, D. C.) had three California condors housed together. Beginning in 1919 and continuing through 1932, these condors produced at least one egg each year, totaling about 17 eggs. Three more eggs were laid between 1935 and 1939. All were either broken or proved to be infertile. Because only one egg was laid most years, and because the zoo keepers could not always tell the birds apart, they never were sure if one of the birds was responsible for all the eggs, or if more than one was producing. Because none of the eggs hatched, there was speculation that all three condors were females. However, when the first of the three birds died in 1939, it proved to be a male [43]. Also, egg laying ceased after the death of the male condor.

Because the National Zoo, like most zoos in the early 1900s, was a mere menagerie, not a scientific operation, the egg-laying of rare California condors received little attention. It was never determined why none of the eggs hatched successfully. Newspapers picked up the story once when the Zoo reported that, because the condors were breaking their eggs, one was given to a domestic chicken to incubate [44]. (It proved infertile.) Unbroken eggs were salvaged and given to the U. S. National Museum; some were added to the Museum's permanent collection, and some were sold or traded to other institutions and private collectors. It was not until the late 1960s, when captive breeding of California condors began to be considered, that some of the details of the National Zoo experience became relevant. Condors had produced eggs in captivity, a condor continued to produce eggs for 20 years after reaching maturity, and a condor did on occasion lay more than one egg per season. This was useful information to have when developing a captive breeding proposal [45].

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Nowhere near as famous as "General," but more of a star in other ways, was "Bozo," a California condor that lived in the Selig Park Zoo in Los Angeles from 1923 to 1928. Bozo, when barely a fledgling, had been found in her nest cave in the Sespe Creek area of Ventura County, where Joseph Herring and Frank Arundell had been shooting condors for museum displays (Chapter 15). She was captured, and taken to the zoo [46].

In 1915, "Colonel" William Selig developed a combination movie studio and zoo in Lincoln Park, Los Angeles, California. Selig's studio, Selig Polyscape Company, produced films featuring Tom Mix and Tarzan. He reportedly had several hundred animals in the zoo, some of which he used in his films and rented out to other film makers. In at least one case, Bozo achieved a brief stardom. The 1926 movie, "The Night Cry," pitted Bozo (as the evil condor) against an animal hero, the famous dog star, Rin Tin Tin. As described in the movie ads, the story "revolves around the intimate tale of a hopeful young rancher, his brave little wife, their cunning baby and the faithful shepherd dog, Rinty, their brave battle against circumstantial evidence, and the wild forces of nature... Among others in the cast are...Bozo, the only California condor in captivity in America, who portrays the role of the villain" [47]. Not a very proud role for one of the world's rarest bird species, but fame is fame. Unfortunately, Bozo didn't get a chance to redeem herself on film; she died of unknown causes in 1928. Her skin and skeleton are in the collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.

* * *

Since the mid-1980s, when the current captive breeding program was begun, California condors in zoos have become commonplace. For twenty years prior to that, however, only one condor was in captivity. When "Topatopa," the Matilija Canyon condor still alive in Los Angeles today (2011), was taken into captivity in February 1967 it truly was an unusual event. In the 20 years between 1946, when the last National Zoo condor died and "Topatopa's" capture, only two California condors are known to have been in captivity. Their combined incarcerations totaled less than two weeks. Both were victims of sickness or injury. One died while confined; the other, an apparent victim of strychnine poisoning, was rehabilitated at the Los Angeles Zoo and returned to the wild [48].

Topatopa, the first of the modern-day California condors in captivity.

Chapter Notes

1. Millikan, C. 1900. Capture of a condor in El Dorado Co., Cal. in 1854. Condor 2(1):12-13.

2. Lamson, J. 1852-1861. Manuscript diary of James Lamson, 30 October to 2 November 1854. Original at North Baker Library, California Historical Society, San Francisco.

3. Anonymous. 1857. Decidedly voracious. Daily Union (Sacramento, California), 24 September 1857.

4. Lawrence, R. E. 1893. Pseudogryphus californianus. Auk 10(3):300-301.

5. Anonymous. 1880. General notes. Sentinel (Indianapolis, Indiana), 27 March 1880.

6. Pages 77-124, Chapter 4, Life of Richard Gird, in: Bancroft, H. H. 1892. The builders of the Commonwealth, Volume III. San Francisco, California: The History Company.

7. Anonymous. 1896. (An untitled note.) Chino Valley Champion (Chino, California), 13 March 1896.

8. Anonymous. 1896. A California vulture story. The Times (New York, New York), 20 March 1896.

9. Anonymous. 1896. A bird that ate a cow. Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois), 5 April 1896.

10. Anonymous. 1896. (Untitled note.) Chino Valley Champion (Chino, California), 27 March 1896.

11. Holmes, F. H. 1897. A pet condor. Nidiologist 4(6):58-59.

Anonymous. 1901. (Untitled note on death of "Ben Butler.") Condor 3(3):79.

12. Cohen, D. A. 1899. Pet California condor. Osprey 3(5):78.

13. Anonymous. 1898. California condor as a lady's pet. Big specimen in the possession of Mrs. Frank H. Holmes of Berryessa. Chronicle (San Francisco, California), 20 May 1898.

14. Letter of 9 November 1898, Frank H. Holmes to C. W. Richmond. Smithsonian Institution Archives (Washington, D. C.), Record Unit 305, Folder 34469.

15. Anonymous. 1859. Adams and his museum for the East. Daily Evening Bulletin (San Francisco, California), 30 September 1859.

16. Pages 437-458 in: Benton, J. 1891. A unique story of a marvellous [sic] career. Life of Hon. Phineas T. Barnum. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Edgewood Publishing Company.

17. Anonymous. 1860. (Untitled report on Grizzly Adams' California Menagerie.) The Star (Los Angeles, California), 12 May 1860.

18. Pages 243-244 in: Hittell, T. H. 1861. The adventures of James Capen Adams, mountaineer and grizzly bear hunter of California. Boston, Massachusetts: Crosby, Nichols, Lee and Company.

19. Anonymous. 1857. Pacific Museum. The Bulletin (San Francisco, California), 19 March 1857.

20. Anonymous. 1859. Birds of California: No. 1, The vulture family. Daily Alta Californian (San Francisco, California), 2 June 1859.

21. Anonymous. 1859. Bitten by the vulture. Daily Evening Bulletin (San Francisco, California), 9 August 1859.

22. Anonymous. 1859. Adams and his museum for the East. Daily Evening Bulletin (San Francisco, California), 30 September 1859.

23. Benton 1891, op. cit.

24. Anonymous. 1860. Adams' California Menagerie. Daily Evening Bulletin (San Francisco, California), 4 December 1860.

25. Anonymous. 1860. (Untitled note, Adams' California Menagerie sailing for Cuba.) Herald Tribune (New York, New York), 15 October 1860.

26. Anonymous. 1861. Barnum's Museum. Commercial Advertiser (New York, New York), 25 January 1861.

27. Page 12 in: Zoological Society of Philadelphia. 1897. The twenty-fifth annual report of the Board of Director of the Zoological Society of Philadelphia. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Allen, Lane & Scott's Printing House.

28. Letter of 1 April 1971 from John A. Griswold (Curator of Birds, Philadelphia Zoological Garden) to Sanford R. Wilbur.

29. Rising, H. G. 1899. Capture of a California condor. Condor 1(2):25-26.

30. Anonymous. 1902. Soldiers Home, Los Angeles, Cal. Ledger (Longmont, Colorado), 16 May 1902.

31. Chambers, W. L. Handwritten manuscript on California condors, undated but probably about 1906. Willie Chambers Papers, BANC MSS 67/131c. The Bancroft Library (Berkeley, California).

Also: Anonymous. 1903. The big condor is dead. Santa Monica (California) Outlook, 18 February 1903.

32. An entertaining (and probably only slightly exaggerated) account of capturing young condors is given in: Whitaker, G. B. 1918. Capturing the great American condor. Overland Monthly 71(5):390-392.

33. Brown, H. S. 1905. The traffic in rare birds, how they are procured for the zoological gardens. Daily Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 23 July 1905.

34. Anonymous. 1905. A big young condor arrives at the Zoo. The Times (New York, New York), 17 March 1905.

35. Anonymous. 1905. After the big condor. Morning Tribune (San Luis Obispo, California), 12 March 1905.

36. Anonymous. 1905. That condor is our condor. Like to know how Frisco ever heard of it. The Sun (New York, New York), 9 April 1905.

37. "Equitable surplus" was an allusion to a headline news story of the day: the Equitable Life Insurance Society was the subject of a class action lawsuit, seeking to force the company to distribute to its shareholders surplus profits of some $80,000,000: a pretty big deal!

38. Anonymous. 1906. Condor killed by rubber diet. Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 26 October 1906.

39. Finley, W. L. 1910. Life history of the California condor. Part IV, The young condor in captivity. Condor 12(1):5-11.

40. All the information available concerning "General" in captivity is included in Finley 1910 op. cit. However, Finley told the story of his condor many times in journals, magazines, and newspapers, and several of the periodical articles are noteworthy for their photographs of condors:

Finley, W. L. 1908. Home life of the California condor. Century 75(3):370-380.

Finley, W. L. 1909. General, a pet California condor. Country Life 16(1):35-38.

Finley, W. L., and I. Finley. 1915. Condor as a pet. Bird-lore 17(5):413-419.

Information on "General's" nest life before capture is included in:

Finley, W. L. 1906. Life history of the California condor. Part I. Condor 8(6):135-142.

Finley, W. L. 1908. Life history of the California condor. Part III. Condor 10(2):59-65.

41. "General" is often referred to as "he," but I can find no evidence that the sex of the bird was ever known for certain.

42. Finley 1910 op cit.

43. There is no formal source of information on the condors' breeding activities. The records of egg-laying were pieced together from the annual reports of the U. S. National Museum, a few notes kept at the National Zoo, and one publication:

Dixon, E. 1924. California condors breed in captivity. Condor 26(5):192.

44. Anonymous. 1926. Condor lays $750 egg in Washington Zoo; but ordinary hen gets job of hatching chick. The Times (New York, New York), 3 May 1926.

45. Pages 69-72, 115-120, and 281-287 in: Wilbur, S. R. 2004. Condor tales: what I learned in twelve years with the big birds. Gresham, Oregon: Symbios.

46. Wyman, L. E. 1924. A California condor in captivity. Condor 26(4):153.

47. Anonymous. 1926. Only one other in captivity. Seattle (Washington) Daily Times, 13 June 1926.

Anonymous. 1926. Rin Tin Tin, wonder dog, heads Rialto double feature program. Jewish Chronicle (Newark, New Jersey), 2 April 1926.

48. Borneman, J. C. 1966. Return of a condor. Audubon Magazine 68(3): 154-157.


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Sanford Wilbur 2021