Friday, April 12, 2024

Adding California condors to the layout

This may seem a rather exotic idea. But I’m doing it. Probably many readers have seen layouts with kites in the air, or airplanes; I can remember visiting a layout with a blimp in the air. Well, why not birds? Of course, nearly all bird species are quite tiny in HO scale. But the California condor, with a wingspan of up to 10 feet (the largest in North America) is a potential exception. As explained below, I decided to give it a try.

These birds are mostly black, but like most vulture species, have a bare head. They also have elongated white patches on the underside of the wings. Below you see a California condor in Zion National Park (Phil Armitage public domain photo, 2007), with tracking devices visible on both wings. 

The California condor, as many readers may know, was on the verge of extinction, with only 22 birds alive in the wild, when conservation efforts began in 1987. Capturing wild birds for breeding, nurturing of chicks, added protection for birds released into the wild, and thorough monitoring of health of the population in the wild, has been a notable success. 

Today there are estimated to be 558 of these birds in the wild, and in addition to their last original range in the coastal mountains of California, they now are successfully ranging and breeding in many other areas, including the high Sierra, southern Utah and northern Arizona, and both Big Sur and Pinnacles National Park in California. Introduction of condors has recently been accomplished in Redwood National Park in northern California, and in northern Mexico. For more, see: .

The Miniprints offerings (see their line at: ) include a California condor in their extensive line of 3D-printed birds and animals in HO scale. The origin of this is interesting. My friend Seth Neumann contacted Bernard Hallen at Miniprints and asked if he could make a condor. What he apparently did was scale up a vulture, and of course condors are in the vulture family, so these are certainly close enough in HO scale. 

Seth bought some, painted them, and was kind enough to give me two pair. There are two standing birds and two in flight (shown below both from above, with all-black wings, and from below, like the prototype photo above). The model wing span is about 1.25 inches, which translates to about 9 feet in HO scale, certainly reasonable.

So how would these bird models be installed on a layout? They are soaring birds, so should be seen in a hilly area, and obviously the flying ones have to be in the air. For the standing birds, I luckily have a perfect rock outcrop above my layout town of Ballard, so one of them fits nicely there.

The thought of the condor, brooding above the town, inevitably brings to mind one of the great personalities that Charlie Brown’s dog, Snoopy, assumed: the “fierce vulture” in a tree. Not sure the condor looks a great deal like Charles Schulz's drawing (internet image).

The flying condor I decided to attach to a wire, allowing it to appear to be actually “in the air” above the hillside. I used 0.015-inch brass wire. I first tried it out unpainted, attaching it to the underside of the flying condor with canopy glue, and sticking the wire into the hillside above Ballard. You can readily see the wire in the photo below, because it is still shiny brass color.

I then spray-painted the wire medium gray, which seemed like a sufficiently neutral color to make it disappear. And it does, from most angles. In fact, the condor is now a little hard to photograph so that the wire shows. After trying several different perspectives, I did come up with one where the wire is visible. But I will repeat that viewing from the layout aisle, it’s pretty hard to see the wire.

This was a fun addition to the layout, and of course full credit to Seth Neumann for both the idea and the models. But now that they’re available from Miniprints, anyone can do the same. I’m glad to do something to honor the return of the California condor to the wild, even in HO scale.

Tony Thompson


  1. Play the Andean Quena Flute music as a background to your next operations session...

    1. It's true that the word "condor" is from Quechua, the Andean language, but those are different condors . . .
      Tony Thompson