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Local nonprofits call for donations as bird flu threatens endangered California condors

 Efforts to protect California condors from a deadly avian influenza are underway in California.
Efforts to protect endangered California condors from a deadly avian influenza are underway in California.

The California condor was successfully saved through species recovery efforts after near extinction in the 1980s. Now, the species faces a new threat from a Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI).

Twenty-one California condors died this spring from avian influenza, also called bird flu.

“Unfortunately, what we learned in March of this year was that this particular strain is lethal to California condors and we lost a number of birds,” said Ashleigh Blackford from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

California condors are a critically-endangered species. In the 1980s, there were as few as 22 birds remaining, but with breeding programs and government protections, the population has rebounded — growing to 561. Condors live throughout the western United States and Baja, Mexico. Some live in the wild and others in captivity.

Blackford said the condor deaths were all in Arizona, and as of now, the population in California has not been affected, though the virus has been found in other bird species in the state.

“There's an urgent need across the species range to take steps to minimize the threat from avian influenza,” she said.

In addition to closely monitoring flocks for signs of illness, Blackford said an existing vaccine was recently approved for use with California condors. In a trial earlier this month, vaccines were given to a few birds in a captive setting.

At the October Condor Zoom-chat, Ventana Wildlife Society staff presented the new condor rookie cohort.
Screenshot — Ventana Wildlife Society
At the October 2022 Condor Zoom-chat, Ventana Wildlife Society staff presented their new condor rookie cohort.

“So, we know that our first dose on the first three birds was safe. All of those birds showed no reaction at the injection site and all continue to be in good health,” Blackford said.  

She said if results from the trial continue to go well, they’ll consider vaccinating the larger population.

Local nonprofits are working to raise awareness about the threatened species. Friends of California Condors Wild & Free and The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History issued a joint appeal for donations to the Condor Recovery Program’s Avian Influenza Response. Helen Johnson is with Friends of California Condors.

“Capturing birds and vaccinating can be a real challenge. You’re talking about approximately 90 birds in the Southern California flock,” Johnson said.

Condor sites throughout the state include Bitter Creek and Hopper Mountain, Pinnacles National Park, Big Sur, and Redwood National Park. Johnson said donations to the emergency fund will support response efforts for the California condor population wherever needed.

Avian influenza is just one of the threats facing California condors, a major cause of death is lead poisoning from ammunition left behind by hunters.

For more information you can visit the websites of Friends of California Condors Wild & Free, Ventana Wildlife Society,  Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, or US Fish and Wildlife Services.

Beth Thornton is a freelance reporter for KCBX, and a contributor to Issues & Ideas. She was a 2021 Data Fellow with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, and has contributed to KQED's statewide radio show The California Report.
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