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Condor crisis deepens; 18 deaths in three weeks

California Condor
A California Condor takes flight after a physical exam in 2014. Photo by Jon Myatt/USFWS

The decades-long project to keep the California Condor from going extinct faces a new crisis due to the widespread strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI).

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported on Wednesday that six condors are confirmed to have died from HPAI since March 20, and 12 other deceased birds are suspected to have had the illness. Five more condors are undergoing testing for the bird flu and are receiving care.

All of the dead and ill birds are from the wild, free-flying Southwestern flock, which is found across northern Arizona and southern Utah. At the end of 2022, this flock had 116 individuals. The 18 birds that have died in roughly three weeks represent 15 percent of the Southwestern flock. (Earlier this week, we reported on the first three confirmed deaths.)

“Until further notice,” the FWS wrote, “we will report all deceased condors in the Southwest Flock found on or after March 30, 2023, as ‘suspect HPAI.’” The agency says it will update the total of confirmed HPAI deaths as more test results come in.

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.

‘Not a matter of if but when’

However, the nonprofit Ventana Wildlife Society, one of the main organizations in condor recovery in California, says on its website that other species in the area have tested positive for HPAI. Bird flu has been documented in Turkey Vultures, Snowy Plovers, and several species of waterfowl in Monterey County this year, “dangerously close to the free-flying condor flock in central California. HPAI is now all around us, so it is not a matter of if but when an outbreak will occur.”

Ventana Wildlife adds: “Our condor crew has been following strict safety protocols when handling condors since before the disease was found to occur in central California and have made preparations for quarantine and treatment through partners. Though a vaccine does exist, it is currently unavailable in the U.S. and the timeline for its availability is unknown. Therefore, we must construct temporary quarantine pens and provide additional veterinary support so that we can be even more prepared. These quarantine sites will allow for infected birds to receive supportive care in an environment that is removed from zoos, domestic poultry, and the free-flying condor population, thus helping to mitigate the spread of this devastating disease while infected condors receive medical treatment. Additionally, quarantine pens will be used to vaccinate the wild flock when the vaccine is available.

“In addition to the measures taken since 2022 to prevent the spread of HPAI, we are now working closely with partners to develop even more contingency plans. This week, we raised $80,000 in support of the purchase of 10 quarantine pens which will arrive in two weeks. SPCA for Monterey County [the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals] has approved the temporary use of their land on which to setup these pens. Once placed, these pens can be used for treatment, vaccination (when available) and even safeguarding healthy condors from HPAI. We are especially thankful to our partners at SPCA for Monterey County for their collaboration.”

Meanwhile, The Peregrine Fund, one of the lead organizations in condor recovery for the Southwestern flock, posted an emergency appeal for 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.”

​Joanna Gilkeson, an FWS spokesperson, explains that The Peregrine Fund is rescuing birds that are observed to be in distress, and it is recovering any dead birds that are spotted. “In addition, they are taking steps to limit any transmission within the flock by discouraging congregation, which often occurs at communal food and water stations provided by recovery partners,” Gilkeson says. “These recovery actions have been placed on pause until it is deemed that can be done in a safe manner for the birds.”

I asked Gilkeson if any wild condors would be captured and brought into captivity to try to prevent more birds from becoming sick. “The condor recovery program is working with our partners to identify how best to respond to HPAI in Arizona and prepare for any such event in California,” she says. “There has not been any decision to capture and hold birds. Establishing quarantine pens is a proactive measure that can be used for multiple purposes, including testing of birds should HPAI be detected in the flocks in California.”

I also asked how the HPAI crisis is affecting the current nesting season. Gilkeson replied: “The confirmation of HPAI in the Southwest Flock of condors is an emerging and fluid situation. It is too soon to speculate what this means for the Arizona-Utah flock and recovery of the condor and nesting season.”

Editor’s note: story updated at 9 pm Eastern time, April 13, with quotes from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

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Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall is the editor of BirdWatching magazine and You can reach him at [email protected].

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