In early 2022, when a new avian flu began circulating among North America’s wild birds in addition to domestic fowl, Tim Hauck took note. Hauck helps manage the reintroduction of California Condors in Arizona and Utah, a decades-long project to restore the iconic birds to an equally iconic landscape from the Grand Canyon to Zion National Park. Hauck and his team at The Peregrine Fund, a conservation organization focused on birds of prey, hoped that geography and the flock’s isolation would keep the birds safe from the virus.
“We all suspected if it was going to hit anywhere, it was going to hit in California,” Hauck says. Waterfowl have proven to be particularly susceptible to the current avian flu, a highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) identified as H5N1, and the flyways that they use while migrating pass mainly through California and along the coast. Carrion-eating condors could easily contract the disease by eating an infected bird, but the Arizona-Utah condors, also known as the southwest flock, live well outside the main path of the Pacific flyway. The flock’s location also means it never encounters condors from the four other re-established flocks in North America.
But on March 9, Hauck and his team noticed a condor acting strangely when it arrived at the site where the team regularly puts out water and food for the birds. “It sat there," Hauck says. And sat there. At first, they suspected lead poisoning—a leading cause of death for wild condors, as well as Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles, of which lethargy is a tell-tale sign. But when the team was able to capture the bird, the lead test was negative. Still, they sent the ailing condor, a four-year old female, to a rehabilitation center in Phoenix for testing and care.
What followed was a harrowing month. “Our crews have been absolutely entrenched in battle, picking up dead birds every day,” Hauck says. Not long after they noticed the lethargic bird, the team found a dead condor and confirmed the first case of HPAI. By mid-April, 20 birds had died, most of which tested positive for avian flu—a loss of 1 out of every 6 birds in the flock.
“I don't think there's any doubt that this sets us back a significant amount of time,” Hauck says. “To lose 20 birds in a pretty short window, that's a decade plus of work right there.”
California Condors are the largest flying birds in North America, with a wingspan of nine and a half feet. A species of vulture, condors take six to eight years to reach breeding age. Spring is typically an exciting season, Hauck says, as his team watches closely to see which birds will pair together, laying eggs between February and April. Before the arrival of HPAI, the team was also preparing to release three more condors into the southwest flock, which numbered 116 at the end of 2022, just shy of the recovery goals set decades earlier.
From a precarious low of just 23 condors left in the world in 1984 to a population today that tops 500, Hauck calls the restoration of the California Condor “one of the greatest success stories in conservation.” Their recovery depended on a highly managed captive-breeding program and collaboration between dozens of public and private partners, guided by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).
The southwest flock’s geographic isolation—which didn’t prevent HPAI from reaching the birds but did stop it from spreading directly to other condors—wasn’t an accident, explains Ashleigh Blackford, who coordinates the FWS condor recovery program and is helping flock managers and other partners monitor and respond to the situation. “It’s actually part of the recovery strategy,” she says, and intended precisely for situations like this one; even if a catastrophic event strikes one population, other condor flocks won’t be affected. “HPAI is definitely showing why that was such foresight to have these separations," she says. "I’m thankful that they established that early in the program."
That doesn’t mean the other flocks are free from danger. HPAI is still circulating in wild birds they could encounter, and if one condor gets sick, in-flock transmission remains a serious risk. Like other vultures, condors are particularly hardy birds, evolved to eat carrion that would sicken or kill many other species. So it’s somewhat surprising that HPAI has proved so deadly to them, Blackford says, but knowing they can get sick, the virus's quick spread makes sense—condors are extremely social. “They’re communal feeders," Blackford says. "They’re communal roosters.” Another risk factor, she points out, is that the birds "poop on themselves." It's an adaptation that helps them keep cool, but HPAI can spread through feces.
Around the country, breeding programs and flock managers are taking extra precautions. In Arizona, Hauck and his crew started wearing additional protective gear that is used once and either washed or thrown away, and they stopped putting out food and water for the wild birds. “We did not want to congregate birds in a single location,” he says. That’s not an option for some flocks, like the newly established condors in northern California. Just last year, the Yurok Tribe released the first condors in the region since the 19th century. Chris West, who manages the flock, says the eight birds on the landscape still need direct support. In a long-standing population, the young learn first from their parents and then from other condors how to survive in their environment, but these birds don’t have that advantage. “We just released them into an area with no condors. So there's no one to teach them about the landscape and the resources,” he says. “They're having to learn everything themselves.”
For that reason, West says they can’t stop providing food and water for the new and mentor-less birds, but they’ve intensified both their cleaning and monitoring. “We're not just watching the condors anymore,” he says. “We're watching all the Turkey Vultures. We're watching all the ravens,” ready to intervene if any bird shows signs of sickness.
Extra precautions mean extra expenses. Blackford says FWS is exploring what, if any, additional funding could be available. In the meantime, partners including The Peregrine Fund and the Yurok Tribe are doing their own fundraising to support their efforts.
Ultimately, HPAI circulating among wild birds may be something we can do little to curb. Blackford, Hauck, and West all stress that this fact makes it more important than ever to tackle the threats to condors we can address, namely poisoning from lead bullets that hunters leave behind in entrails and carcasses. “Let’s continue to collect our gut piles. Let’s continue to make transitions to non-lead ammunition,” Blackford says. “The more birds out there surviving on the landscapes will make us more resilient to these events that we don’t have as much control over.”
In the southwest, the crisis seems to be ebbing as the days grow sunnier and warmer. No condors have been found sick or dead since April 11. Despite the loss of 13 birds of breeding age among the dead—the official death count was recently raised to 21 to include a “well-known and well-loved” adult who hasn’t been spotted since March—Hauck says a handful of nests are still on track to hatch very soon. Four condors taken for treatment at the Phoenix rehabilitators are recovering, including the very first bird the team noticed in distress in March. When she’s deemed healthy enough, and not at risk of infecting other birds, she’ll be returned to her flock, back to the canyons and the skies.