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Bird flu kills 3 California Condors; more cases pending

California Condor at Grand Canyon National Park. Photo by Georgi Baird/Shutterstock

Update, April 13: Condor crisis deepens; 18 deaths in three weeks

Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) has been confirmed as the cause of mortality for three California Condors found in northern Arizona, according to wildlife officials. The Arizona-Utah population moves throughout northern Arizona and southern Utah, using the landscape within Grand Canyon National Park, Zion National Park, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, the Kaibab Plateau, and surrounding areas. To date, the virus has not been detected in the other condor populations in California or Baja California, Mexico. 

On March 9, The Peregrine Fund, which manages the Arizona-Utah condor flock, first observed a bird in the wild exhibiting signs of illness, initially suspected to be lead poisoning. Crews continued to monitor this bird and others showing similar behavior. On March 20, they collected the deceased female below her nest, which was the first bird confirmed positive with HPAI.

Upon collection, the bird was sent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Clark R. Bavin National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory for necropsy to determine the cause of death. Oregon Veterinary Diagnostic Lab analyzed samples, and preliminary results indicated the bird tested positive for HPAI subtype H5N1. The positive result was confirmed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Veterinary Service Laboratory on March 30. 

As of April 4, a total of three deceased birds have been retrieved and confirmed as HPAI positive. Test results are not yet final for five additional deceased birds. Others have been collected and are pending necropsy and testing; information will be provided once test results are available.

Additionally, five birds displaying signs of illness were captured by The Peregrine Fund and sent to Liberty Wildlife in Phoenix for care. One of the birds died shortly after arrival. The remaining four are in quarantine while samples are tested for HPAI. Any additional live or deceased condors collected in Arizona and Utah will be treated as HPAI suspected cases. Live birds will be transferred to appropriate facilities to receive care.

As of December 31, 2022, the condor’s world population was 561 birds. The free-flying wild population stood at 347. The Arizona-Utah population numbered 116 individuals — the highest of any region. 

Condors face multiple stressors

California Condor populations face multiple stressors, such as exposure to lead shot and habitat degradation, that have reduced the resiliency of the population. To address the unfolding threat of HPAI, coordination is ongoing with avian influenza experts, veterinarians, and Tribal, state, and federal partners across the condor’s range. California Condor recovery partners are mobilizing resources and taking preemptive steps to protect wild birds from HPAI. Across the condor’s range, daily activities continue, such as captive breeding and the monitoring of breeding and nesting sites. 

Potential exposure of HPAI is expected to rise during the spring migration of birds north to their breeding grounds. HPAI has been detected in all U.S. states, except Hawai’i, in wild and domestic animals. 

HPAI is considered low risk as a human health concern, according to the Centers for Disease Control; however, infections in humans have been reported. HPAI is highly contagious in wildlife and can spread quickly by several routes, including bird-to-bird contact, environmental contamination with fecal material, and via exposed clothing, shoes, and vehicles. To protect people and birds, it is important to take precautions to prevent spread of the virus. 

Ways to help

  • If you see a condor exhibiting any of the following signs of illness in Arizona or Utah, please contact The Peregrine Fund at 585-747-5885. Signs include lethargy, incoordination, presenting as dull or unresponsive, holding head in an unusual position, and walking in circles.
  • Please follow the below guidance to help limit the spread of the virus and avoid bird-human contact:  
    • To report dead or sick animals, please contact your state wildlife agency.
    • Keep your family, including pets, a safe distance away from wildlife. 
    • Do not feed, handle, or approach sick or dead animals or their droppings.
    • Always wash your hands after working or playing outside.
    • Prevent contact of domestic or captive birds with wild birds.  
    • Leave young animals alone. Often, the parent animals are close by and will return for their young. For guidance on orphaned or injured wild birds, please contact your nearest wildlife rehabilitation center, state wildlife agency, or local land management agency.
    • USDA also has biosecurity guidance for people who keep backyard poultry.

Emergency donations requested

The Peregrine Fund, which has been involved in condor recovery for decades, has posted a request for emergency donations. The request states:

“Almost immediately, our team in Arizona, led by Program Director Tim Hauck, amplified efforts to address this situation, up to and including recovering birds from the formidable canyonlands of northern Arizona and southern Utah. Our biologists on the ground are currently monitoring individual birds for symptoms and recovering sick or deceased birds for necropsies. 

“While the focus of our work is to recover this critically endangered species through captive breeding, release, and monitoring, this emergency requires increased and intensified human resources and equipment to safeguard this critical population. This is an all-hands-on-deck effort. Partners like Zion National Park are already supporting this emergency effort by rappelling 250-foot cliff faces to recover condors. This strenuous and dangerous work requires more resources on the ground right now, and more needs will continue to develop.”

Thanks to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for providing this news.

Update, April 13: Condor crisis deepens; 18 deaths in three weeks

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