Early Birds?


 As recently as 2013, a scientific paper included the information that, in the winter of 1602-1603, the Catholic priest Antonio de la Ascencion saw California condors feeding on a whale carcass at Monterey Bay, California. He didn't; or, if he did, he didn't write about it. This tired old story - known to be untrue for at least 20 years - gets told over and over again in both popular and technical literature. If you want to know the true story, here it is.

[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.]

*   *   *

  The first Europeans to reach California condor country probably didn't kill any condors, but some of the slightly later ones might have. Possibly the first casualty occurred in the winter of 1602-1603, when the Spaniard Sebastian Vizcaino sailed his ships into Monterey Bay. No one in his party left a day-to-day journal of the time spent there (16 December 1602 to 3 January 1603), but both Vizcaino and the Catholic padre Antonio de la Ascencion wrote down some of their impressions of the area and its wildlife.

   Vizcaino was brief: "There is much wild game, such as harts, like young bulls, deer, buffalo, very large bears, rabbits, hares, and many other animals and many game birds, such as geese, partridges, quail, crane, ducks, vultures, and many other kinds of birds which I will not mention lest it become wearisome" [1]. Ascencion added a few more names to the list: "There are many of these animals [tirando: reindeer; elk?] here, and besides them there are large deer, stags, jackrabbits, and rabbits, and wild-cats as large as kids. There is an abundance of birds of all kinds, geese, doves, thrushes, sparrows, linnets, cardinals, quail, partridges, magpies, cranes, and buzzards, all like those of Castile." He went on to name a few birds of the seashore and also some of the local marine life. The lists are interesting (one wonders what Vizcaino saw that he thought were bison, and what birds Ascencion saw that were like the "cardinals" [cardenales] of Castile), but the condor connection lies in Ascencion's next two sentences:

   "There are some other birds here of the shape of turkeys, the largest I saw on this voyage. From the point of one wing to that of the other it was found to measure seventeen spans (more than a yard)" [2].

   The English translator of Ascencion's notes thought these birds had to be California condors, and with a wingspread of seventeen spans [a span being approximately 9 inches], what else could they be? But there were problems: Ascencion added after the measurement of seventeen spans that this was "more than a yard" (de mas de a vara: a vara being about 33 inches). Clearly, the translator said in a footnote, there was an error in Ascencion's journal, because "seventeen spans is more than eight feet" [3]. Yes, it is; seventeen spans is almost thirteen feet. But where exactly was the error?

   Looking at the original Spanish of Ascencion's report, the word translated as "span" is palmo [4]. There are two palm measurements: palmo mayor is about 8 1/4 inches, and palmo menor about 3 inches. Using the large palm measurement instead of the span measure, the big bird's wingspread decreases from thirteen feet to a more likely (taking into account the imprecision of such field estimates) eleven and one-half feet. But, using the palmo menor, the wingspan becomes 4 feet, or "more than a yard." Was he seeing "turkeys" with eleven-foot wings or four-foot wings?

   The Vizcaino expedition had departed Acapulco, Mexico, in March 1602, and had visited a number of locations in Mexico and present-day California. These "turkey-like" birds were "the largest" seen "on this voyage." Surely, they had seen some big birds on the trip, turkey vultures perhaps (with a 5 1/2 feet wingspan)? If so, then clearly the record would favor a bird with the condor-size wingspan. Neither Vizcaino nor Ascencion mentioned vultures until they reached Monterey, but there Vizcaino noted that they saw "vultures," and Ascencion reported "buzzards." There is often some confusion in the early American literature as to what is meant by the term "buzzard"  (Chapter 2), but the word used by Ascencion, buitres, translates as vulture, not hawk or eagle. So, it would seem that Ascencion observed something larger than a turkey vulture.

   There are other questions to be resolved. For instance, if Ascencion could identify turkey vultures, wouldn't he have thought that a condor was more like a large vulture than it was like a turkey? And here we run into another oddity: the word that  Ascencion used that was translated as turkey, gallina, actually means "chicken." I can understand a turkey, in body shape and size and baldish head, reminding someone of a short-winged condor, but a chicken does not bring that comparison to mind.  Ascencion's description actually sounds like the 17th century description of turkey vultures penned by the Russian explorer Langsdorff. The English translation:

  "Among the feathered species, I observed the vultus aura. The feet of this bird are very different from those of any other; the claws are thin and small, and the three foremost are united by a sort of half-web, so that to judge by the feet, it seems to belong to the class of marsh birds, but according to the bill, it should belong to birds of prey... These vultures are gregarious; they are slow in flight, and feed upon  carrion, which, in company with the ravens, with whom they live upon friendly terms, they devour in great quantities" [5].

   No chicken-like bird has a wingspread of more than a yard, so Ascencion must have been describing a large hawk (4 feet), turkey vulture (5 1/2 feet), bald or golden eagle (7 feet), or condor (9 feet). He had already noted seeing vultures (buitre), so presumably the unidentified chicken-like birds were something else. They probably weren't hawks or eagles, because they were feeding on a dead whale... Oops, wait a minute.

   Probably every story written about Ascencion's "condor" sighting has described the birds as feeding on a dead whale. The only problem is that Ascencion never saw such a sight - or, if he did, he didn't write about it. The misinformation arose from the first person to overlook the whimsy in Harry Harris's account of Ascencion's sighting, and was carried on by the hundreds of writers who quoted the misquoter. Concerning the mystery birds, Ascencion wrote only what I've quoted above. In another part of his description of the natural resources of Monterey, he wrote:

   "There are oysters, lobsters, crabs and burgaos (snail, or whelk?) among the rocks, and many large seals, or sea-calves, and whales. One very large one recently dead had gone ashore on the coast in this port and the bears came by night to dine on it" [6].

   Harris took the two quotes, and wove them into a memorable (but imaginative) quote of his own:

"The record begins with the published diary of a barefoot Carmelite friar, Fr. Antonio de la Ascension, who in 1602, from the tossing deck of a tiny Spanish ship, observed on a California beach the stranded carcass of a huge whale (conceivably and probably) surrounded by a cloud of ravenous condors. Here indeed is material with which to stir the most dormant imagination; civilized man for the first time beholding the greatest volant bird recorded in human history, and not merely an isolated individual or two, but an immense swarm rending at their food, shuffling about in crowds for a place at the gorge, fighting and slapping with their great wings at their fellows, pushing, tugging at red meat, silently making a great commotion, and in the end stalking drunkenly to a distance with crop too heavy to carry aloft, leaving space for others of the circling throng to descend to the feast!" [7].

   Great writing, but "conceivably and probably" does not a condor feeding on a whale make.

   Did the Vizcaino party observe California condors? I think they probably did; no matter the number of questions one raises about the record, there don't seem to any other logical alternatives. Did they kill a condor, or at least find one dead? Again, I think the answer has to be yes; "from the point of one wing to that of the other it was found to measure seventeen spans" sounds like an actual (albeit crude) measurement, not an "eyeball estimate."

*   *   *

  After Ascencion, the California condor record is barren of European influence for almost 200 years. The first confirmed specimen was collected in 1792 or 1793 (Chapter 4), but there was a possible condor killed a year or so earlier. Harry Harris, in his "Annals of Gymnogyps," made a case for this specimen.

   "Traversing the entire distance from the Cape region of Lower California to the San Francisco Bay district, [the botanist Jose Longinos Martinez] collected much miscellaneous information and a number of specimens, including at least one California Condor. On his return by ship from Monterey to San Blas he mailed from a port on the coast of Lower California advices to a friend in Madrid that he was forwarding a shipment of specimens. The letter, dated San Borja, Old California, April 15, 1792, addressed to Professor Antonio Porlier, Madrid, Spain, was attached to a manifest containing an itemized list of fourteen species of birds. The first bird on the list (specimen No. 1) is given the strange name of Vultur Harpyia (variety: Monstruosa), which is without much question the first systematic name ever applied to Gymnogyps californianus; and that, above all things, a trinomial! ...The specimen of the condor is of course lost; at least no further mention of it has yet been uncovered, and it is presumed the name was never published. The evidence is explicit enough that this early specimen was taken in California sometime in 1791 or early 1792 and that it therefore antedates the type" [8].

   Harris made some mistakes interpreting the timing and route of Longinos' travels, which raises doubts about his conclusion. Making mistakes with the Longinos manuscript is easy to do. It is neither a journal nor a diary, but is a narrative of various observations Longinos  made while in "Old California" (present-day Baja California, Mexico) and "New California" (the modern-day state of California). There are no dates in the narrative, and an appended "itinerary" is merely a list of place names and the distances (in leagues) from one to the next. (The manuscript editor L. B. Simpson noted in his Preface that the itinerary is clearly inaccurate; to have followed the route identified, Longinos would have "accomplished journeys that would be next to impossible, not to say altogether irrational, as a reference to a map of the territory will convince the investigator" [9]) Only two sources indicate the timing of the trek, the 15 April 1792 letter noted by Harris, and a letter of 22 November 1792 cited by Simpson in his Preface.

   From the April  letter, we learn that, in 1791, Longinos had traveled from Mexico City to San Blas, on the Pacific coast of mainland Mexico, and was in San Blas in June 1791. There is no specific record of his whereabouts for the next six months, but part of that time was spent around Cabo San Lucas, in extreme southern Baja California. He left Cabo San Lucas "three months ago" (mid-January 1792), and traveled north up the peninsula. On 15 April 1792, apparently from a Gulf of California port near San Borja, he sent two boxes of biological specimens to Spain. In the transmittal letter, he advised that he planned to continue north through "Old" and "New" California, arriving in Monterey in September 1792 [10].

   From his narrative, it appears that Longinos carried through with his plan to travel north to Monterey. (Once, he mentioned tar pits in the area between Monterey and San Francisco, but it isn't clear from the narrative that he actually saw them, or just heard about them.) By 22 November 1792, he was back in San Blas, having reached there aboard the frigate "Concepcion," commanded by Don Francisco Eliza. (This information is in a letter from Eliza to the Mexican viceroy, correspondence Simpson discovered in the National Archives of Mexico.)

   Longinos did not send his biological specimens to Spain on his return from Monterey, as Harris believed, but only three months into his journey through Baja California. It’s possible that some of the specimens were collected in mainland Mexico during the three months for which there are no specific records. Any specimens taken between January and April 1792 would have come from Baja California Sur,  between Cabo San Lucas and San Borja. If Longinos did send a California condor skin to Spain, it didn’t come from “Upper” California, but from Mexico at least 150 miles south of any other record of California condor, and in a desert terrain much different than any other known condor habitat.

   Did Longinos collect a condor? Considering just the latitude and the habitat involved, I would be inclined to look elsewhere for the identity of Vultur Harpyia (variety: Monstruosa). My initial vote would have gone to the caracara. However, in a brief description of the birds of "Old California," Longinos identified as being among the "most abundant” he had observed “the crows (those called gueleles or quebrantahuesos—bonebreakers), a species of vulture (Vultur Harpia)…hawks (Falco)…" [11]. Quelele is another name for the caracara, whose appearance does bear similarities to the Old World lammergeyer (quebrantahuesos). That appears to rule out the caracara as the "mystery bird." The inclusion of Vultur Harpyia with the "most abundant" birds seen by Longinos tells us that, whatever species it was, it was not some rarity in the area.

   Later, in "New California," Longinos mentioned seeing "vultures," but with no further description of them [12]. One might have expected him to identify them as Vultur Harpyia, if they were, but the list in which the vulture is included identifies only one bird species with a Latin name. The identity of the “New California” vultures remains undetermined.

   Two additional points, although neither really helps. First, Harris thought that Longinos had coined a new name for the California condor, but Vultur harpia [actually, harpja] was already in use. Linnaeus considered the harpy eagle to be a vulture, and had given it that Latin name in 1758 [13]. Longinos appears to have merely claimed a subspecific identity for his bird. That being the case, he must have thought that he had seen and collected the harpy eagle, but a very big one (variety Monstruosa).

   Second, Simpson translated Longinos as naming the bird "a species of vulture (Vultur Harpia)," which to most people would suggest a (more or less) bald-headed bird. A very large, bare-headed vulture would have to be a California condor. But Longinos did not write what Simpson "translated." The original Spanish says only that he saw "especie de Vultur Harpia;" Simpson added "of vulture," presumably as a clarification [14]. Longinos was not reporting that he saw vultures; he saw birds he though were harpy eagles. It may be significant that he mentions vultures and hawks in his narrative, but not eagles (other than the harpy). Golden eagles are quite common in both Baja California and California; was his "gigantic harpy" a golden eagle?


 Chapter Notes


1. Vizcaino, S. 1916. Diary of Sebastian Vizcaino. Pages 52-103 in: H. E. Bolton, Spanish exploration in the Southwest 1542-1706. New York, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. The wildlife references are on pages 91-92.

2. Page 361 of: Wagner, H. R. (translator). 1928. Father Antonio de la Ascension's account of the voyage of Sebastian Vizcaino. California Historical Society Quarterly 7(4):295-394.

3. Wagner op. cit., page 391.

4. Thanks to Alison Hinderliter (Manuscripts and Archives Librarian, The Newberry Library, Chicago, Illinois) for providing me with a copy of Ascension's original Spanish manuscript entry. It is on page 83 of: Relación de la jornada que hizo el general Sevastian Vizcayno d[e]l descubrimiento de las Californias el año de 1602 [Newberry Library Call Number VAULT Ayer MS 1038 - Special Collections].

5. Pages 480-481 in: Von Langsdorff, G. H. 1817. Voyages and travels to various parts of the world during the years 1803, 1804, 1805, 1806 and 1807. Carlisle, Pennsylvania: George Philips.

6. Wagner op. cit., page 361.

7. Page 4 in: Harris, H. 1941. "The annals of Gymnogyps to 1900." Condor 43(1): 3-55.

8. Harris op. cit., page 8.

9. Pages xi-xii in: Simpson, L. B. 1938. California in 1792. The expedition of Jose Longinos Martinez. San Marino, California: Huntington Library. 111 pages.

10. Simpson op. cit., pages 101-103.

11. Simpson op. cit., page 9.

12. Simpson op. cit., page 35.

13. Oberholser, H. C. 1919. Thrasaetos versus Harpia. Auk 36(2):282.

14. Thanks to Omer "Greg" Whitman for visiting the Huntington Library (San Marino, California), and examining for me the original Spanish of the Longinos manuscript (MSS HM 321).



New and Used Ornithology and Natural History Books

© Sanford Wilbur 2017 - LEAVE A COMMENT