On May 12, all eight of the North Coast’s California condors were inside the release enclosure where they began their new lives — and took off on their first flights into the wild — after being enticed back in by offerings of carrion in preparation for this week’s twice-yearly exams.
Along with the chance to make any needed repairs to the birds’ satellite transmitters and identification tags, the hands-on health assessments include taking blood samples to test for the avian flu as well as lead contamination and other potential threats to the fledgling flock.
The virus appears to have killed at least 21 of the 118 condors in the Arizona-Utah population that soars over the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park in the last few months. Of those, more than half were part of breeding pairs, according to the latest U.S. Fish and Wildlife update.
So far, there are no known cases in the California and Baja California cohorts.
“There’s no indication that our birds have been sick or will get sick, but with the jump Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) made to wild birds (this strain has actually been around 15 years or so, but previously was largely seen in domestic poultry), the California Condor Recovery Program population wide has been on the watch for it,” said Tiana Williams-Claussen, director of the Yurok Tribe Wildlife Department, which oversees the Northern California Condor Restoration Program.
Vultures tend to be resilient to the disease, she said, and there had been some optimism that the endangered birds would not be impacted but “this was proven a false hope” with the outbreak in the southwest flock.
Williams-Claussen said the Yurok Tribe-led effort to bring back the bird they know as prey-go-neesh to the tribe’s ancestral lands has been taking precautions for several months, putting “sanitation and handling protocols in place” that include having staff use disposable booties, gloves and coveralls while onsite “so as not to accidentally bring disease in.”
The NCCRP also recently put out a call on the condor cam livestream, asking viewers to keep an eye out for any birds — including ravens, turkey vultures, which are currently migrating through the area, and the array of raptors that also frequent the feeding area and small pool in an open, fenced-off section of the release site — for signs of illness, such as a loss of coordination.
Another precaution, Williams-Claussen said, is providing samples from the North Coast flock to the condor working group addressing the virus “to check for antibodies indicating past or current infection.”
“The concern related to turkey vultures is that they are known to contract and die from the disease, and can be carriers,” she said. “It is unknown at this point what the transfer vector was for the southwest condor population, but having an influx of new birds into the region through turkey vulture migration means it is a time to be extra vigilant.”
In addition, NCCRP is fundraising to build six isolation pens to hold condors in the event of a local HPAI outbreak, which are estimated to cost $42,000. The program states in a social media post that an “anonymous member of the birding community” has pledged up to $21,000 in matching funds for the effort but there is also a need to “purchase additional response supplies, including: sanitation supplies, pen retrofit materials, condor transport equipment and specialized respirators to keep our staff safe from a disease shown to be transferable and deadly to humans.”
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Williams-Claussen said the NCCRP is also coordinating with the Oakland Zoo — where mentor bird No. 746 that helped impart vital condor knowledge to those now flying in local skies was sent in December due to HPAI concerns — “to provide more advanced treatment than we can provide locally, should it be needed.”
California condors were nearly lost to extinction, with only 22 remaining in a small pocket of mountainous area in Southern California by 1982. Five years later, the last of the wild condors were placed into captive breeding programs in a race against time to save the largest bird in North America.
As of December, there were about 350 flying free, including the eight on the North Coast, with another 200 or so in captivity, including breeding pairs and chicks that will be released into the wild.
But sending condors out into the larger world comes with inherent risk — mainly from man-made threats, including lead poisoning and electrocution by power poles — as well as threats from viruses like HPAI.
Courtesy of The Peregrine Fund
The newly hatched California condor that was taken to be incubated and cared for due to concerns about the health of the father condor that was caring for the nest after his mate died of the virus
Back in the southwest flock, 15 birds have tested positive for HPAI, including 13 that died and two of five under the care of Liberty Wildlife in Phoenix, Arizona.
According to a May 12 U.S. Fish and Wildlife update, the discrepancy between the number of deceased and confirmed HPAI positive birds is because some of those that died are unrecoverable due to terrain or other issues and their infection status has not been confirmed.
Among the few bright points, USFW reports, is the May 9 hatching of a condor egg that was taken to be incubated and cared for by Liberty Wildlife more than a month ago due to concerns about the health of the father condor that was caring for the nest after his mate died of the virus.
“The chick is healthy and tested 'negative’ for HPAI, “ USFW states. “Partners tentatively identified foster parents at the Peregrine Fund’s captive breeding facility to raise the chick and maximize the likelihood it can be released back into the wild. Liberty Wildlife, who has experience raising raptors, continues to care for the chick until transfer.”
Courtesy of The Peregrine Fund
The egg pipping.
Meanwhile, the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) on May 16 approved the emergency use of HPAI vaccine in an attempt to prevent additional deaths at the request of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“APHIS approved this emergency vaccination of the condors because these birds are critically endangered, closely monitored, and their population is very small, which allows close monitoring of the vaccine to ensure it is administered only to the approved population,” a release from the agency states.
Because the vaccine, which is a “killed, inactivated product conditionally licensed by APHIS’ Center for Veterinary Biologics in 2016,” has not previously been tested against the current strain or on condors, APHIS states “the first step in the vaccination program is a pilot safety study in North American vultures, a similar species, to investigate if there are any adverse effects before giving the vaccine to the endangered condors.”
The trial will begin this month in North Carolina, the release states.
Ashleigh Blackford, who coordinates California condor recovery for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, told the Los Angeles Times
that the service is “reevaluating multiple aspects of our condor recovery program to keep it moving forward.”
“But," she noted, “the challenge is this: How do we implement new strategies without doing more harm than good?”
For the time being, the Peregrine Fund, which oversees the southwest flock, has discontinued communal feeding sites and watering areas, and is evaluating “when conditions will allow for condor releases to resume.”
Locally, the plans are different.
“We will not be halting use of communal feeding and watering stations, as at this point there is no indication that our birds are at any greater risk than they were, say, five months ago and these communal sites are important management and socializing locations,” Williams-Claussen said in an email to the Journal
. “Our site is distinct from the southwest’s in two ways. The first is that they are undergoing an active disease outbreak which warrants the move. The second is that our birds are young and have no larger, experienced flock to learn from. The Peregrine Fund has a mature flock that is not as reliant on proffered food. Our young birds have not yet been found to feed on wild-foraged food yet, and so are wholly reliant on what we provide. Given that we need to maintain these communal sites, we use regular sanitation of communal resources to reduce risk.”
The North Coast flock currently includes Ney-gem' 'Ne-chween-kah (She carries our prayers, A0), Hlow Hoo-let (Finally, I/we fly, A1), Nes-kwe-chokw' (He returns/arrives, A2) and Poy'-we-son (The one who goes ahead, “leader,” A3) as well as Cher-perhl So-nee-ne-pek' (I feel strong, A4); and Neee'n (Watcher, A5), 'Me-new-kwek,' (I’m bashful or I am shy, A6) and He-we-chek' (I am healthy or I get well, A7).
Last May, condors A3 and A2 became the first of the iconic birds held sacred by the Yurok Tribe and many other Indigenous cultures to fly free in local skies in more than a century, followed shortly after by A1 and A0.
The second cohort — A4, A5, A6 and A7 — joined them seven months later.
The NCCRP, a partnership between the Yurok Tribe and Redwood National and State Parks, plans to reintroduce one cohort of prey-go-neesh every year for at least the next two decades, with the goal of spreading the endangered species with a nearly 10-foot wingspan up into the Pacific Northwest.
“It is rough. Not only our program and our local tribal peoples, but many supporters nationwide as well have grown to love these condors,” Williams-Claussen said. “The reality is, should one of our birds become ill, they are so social that it is quite possible they would all become ill. Unfortunately, that is one of the realities of having a new reintroduction site; fewer birds means that your population is less resilient. For now, we can only do our best to be as protective and responsive as we can until the disease reaches containment.”