California condors confront bird flu in flight from extinction

May 11, 2023, 9:38 PM

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The California condor is facing the deadliest strain of avian influenza in U.S. history, and the outbreak could jeopardize the iconic vulture with its 10-foot (3.05-meter) wingspan decades after conservationists saved the species from extinction.

But nine newly hatched chicks, covered in downy white feathers, give condor-keepers at the Los Angeles Zoo hope that the endangered population of North America’s largest soaring land birds will once again thrive after 40 years of aggressive efforts.

With fewer than 350 condors in the wild — in flocks that span from the Pacific Northwest to Baja California, Mexico — the historic outbreak means ongoing breeding-in-captivity and re-wilding programs like the LA Zoo’s remain essential.

Over the past year and a half, millions of birds across the U.S. have died from avian flu, including deaths of dozens of seals off the coast of Maine last summer.

Already, the strain is believed to have caused the deaths of at least 22 California condors in Arizona, which were part of a flock in the Southwest that typically accounts for a third of the species’ entire wild population.

Experts are now concerned the strain could further impact condors by rapidly spreading across state lines through the spring migration. More than two dozen environmental advocates this week urged the federal government to expedite approvals for a vaccine that would be given to both condors in the wild and in captivity.

The advocates, which include the Center for Biological Diversity, warned in a letter that the flu strain is “jeopardizing the existence” of the famed bird.

“The California condor is at risk of extinction once again, and once again, an emergency vaccination campaign is required to stave off a deadly infection and possible extinction,” they wrote, referencing the success of the West Nile Virus vaccine for condors in the early 2000s.

As the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act approaches, wildlife officials say the species still cannot sustain itself without human intervention — even though humans are also to blame for much of its losses outside the avian flu, including deaths from lead ammunition poisoning.

“I think it’s going to take some changes in behavior from the humans on the planet so that we can really address the threats to the species,” said Ashleigh Blackford, the California condor coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Despite a California law banning it for hunting, lead ammunition is still readily used. The condors scavenge meat from dead animals, felled by the lead ammunition, and fall ill — often fatally.

“It’s really hard to watch a bird you raised come back and die in your arms,” said Los Angeles Zoo condor-keeper Chandra David, who has tended to lead-poisoned condors brought back to the zoo for treatment. “And there’s nothing we can do about it.”

Still, spring is a time for hope. At breeding programs in the U.S. and Mexico, chicks are hatching and online “condor cams” provide live feeds for fans.

“It’s a funny species in that it really is not your typical charismatic species, right? They are a little bit on the ugly side. Most people are not endeared to vultures, but this one in particular (is different),” Blackford said.

Regardless, the condor looms large in California culture — even if it’s not the official state bird (that’s the California quail). The mascot for the Los Angeles Clippers is Chuck the Condor and one of the birds in flight is featured prominently on the state quarter.

The population was nearly wiped out by hunting during the California Gold Rush, as well as poisoning from toxic pesticide DDT and lead ammunition.

In the 1980s, all 22 California condors left in the wild were controversially captured and put into captive breeding programs to save the species. Zoo-bred birds were first released into the wild in 1992 and in the years since have been reintroduced into habitats they’d disappeared from — including the Yurok Tribe’s ancestral lands in Northern California. The ongoing re-wilding efforts are considered a conservation success.

“It took decades to drive species toward extinction and it’s, in many cases, going to take decades to bring them back,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for Center for Biological Diversity.

The condor is intrinsically tied to several Native American tribes in the West. The Havasupai people, for example, say the condor flew their ancestors from the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the top — its wings creating the famous striations.

For the Yurok Tribe, the work to bring the condors back highlights how Native Americans are reclaiming their traditional roles as stewards of the land — “which was a role that was taken from us forcibly post-contact,” said Tiana Williams-Claussen, director of the tribe’s wildlife department.

Known as prey-go-neesh in Yurok, the revered condor disappeared from the region in the late 1800s. In 2021, Williams-Claussen and her team, building on a promise made by tribal leaders in 2003, watched as captive-bred condors took flight over Yurok lands for the first time in more than a century.

The tribe hopes to release four to six captive-bred birds into the wild annually over the next two decades.

“Ultimately our goal, of course, is to have birds without tags, without transmitters, that can just reintegrate into our ecosystem,” Williams-Claussen said, “into our cultural lifeways again.”

United States News

Associated Press

Disneyland character and parade performers in California vote to join labor union

ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — Disneyland performers who help bring Mickey Mouse, Cinderella and other beloved characters to life at the Southern California resort chose to unionize following a three-day vote culminating on Saturday. The Actors’ Equity Association labor union said in a statement Saturday that cast members for the parades and characters departments at Disney’s […]

4 hours ago

Rudy Giuliani...

Associated Press

Rudy Giuliani is the final defendant to serve indictment in Arizona fake elector case

Rudy Giuliani has been served an indictment in Arizona's fake elector case for his role in an attempt to overturn the 2020 election.

5 hours ago

Associated Press

Dive team finds bodies of 2 men dead inside plane found upside down in Alaska lake

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The bodies of two men have been recovered from a plane that was found face down in a lake, Alaska State Troopers said Saturday. Troopers were notified late Friday of the upside-down aircraft in Six Mile Lake near the Athabascan community of Nondalton, located about 200 miles (322 kilometers) southwest of […]

7 hours ago

Associated Press

6 people killed, 10 others injured in Idaho when pickup crashes into passenger van

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (AP) — Six people were killed Saturday in Idaho in a two-car accident that included a large passenger van, authorities said. Ten others were injured in the crash on U.S. Highway 20 in Idaho Falls and taken to local hospitals, Idaho State Police said in a statement. An eastbound pickup crossed the […]

11 hours ago

Rudy Giuliani bankruptcy filing defamation lawsuit...


Rudy Giuliani served Arizona indictment in alleged scheme to overturn 2020 presidential election results

Attorney Rudy Giuliani was served notice on Friday of his Arizona indictment in the alleged scheme to overturn 2020 presidential election results in former President Donald Trump's favor, according to Kris Mayes, the state's attorney general.

16 hours ago

Associated Press

6 Penn students among 19 pro-Palestinian protesters arrested during attempt to occupy building

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A half-dozen University of Pennsylvania students were among 19 pro-Palestinian protesters arrested during an attempt to occupy a school building, university police said Saturday. Their arrests came a week after authorities broke up a protest encampment on campus and arrested nine students — and as other colleges across the country, anxious to […]

18 hours ago

Sponsored Articles


Condor Airlines

Condor Airlines can get you smoothly from Phoenix to Frankfurt on new A330-900neo airplane

Adventure Awaits! And there's no better way to experience the vacation of your dreams than traveling with Condor Airlines.



Desert Institute for Spine Care is the place for weekend warriors to fix their back pain

Spring has sprung and nothing is better than March in Arizona. The temperatures are perfect and with the beautiful weather, Arizona has become a hotbed for hikers, runners, golfers, pickleball players and all types of weekend warriors.


Fiesta Bowl Foundation

The 51st annual Vrbo Fiesta Bowl Parade is excitingly upon us

The 51st annual Vrbo Fiesta Bowl Parade presented by Lerner & Rowe is upon us! The attraction honors Arizona and the history of the game.

California condors confront bird flu in flight from extinction