The egg posed a problem. Biologist Shawn Farry and his crew had spent much of March and April collecting sick and dying California Condors from the red rock landscape of northern Arizona, including a bird officially known as 316. The 20-year-old female had succumbed to avian influenza shortly after laying her egg in a high cliffside cave. Her mate, 680, now tended the nest alone in a small space that likely harbored the deadly virus.
“There wasn’t really anything we could do to help him,” says Farry, manager of the California Condor program at The Peregrine Fund, the conservation group that manages the southwest condor flock—115 birds that roost and roam from the Grand Canyon to Zion National Park. On his own, 680’s chances of hatching the egg were vanishingly small and, unwilling to leave the nest very long to eat or drink, the 10-year-old male was himself in danger.
So, not knowing if the chick inside was dead or alive or whether it, too, was infected with avian flu, Farry and his team decided to take the one action they knew could give 680 a shot at survival: bring the egg into captivity. If humans could successfully hatch it, they could also bring one more condor into the world that had almost lost them forever.
North America’s largest land birds, the vultures with nine-foot wingspans once flew over much of the continent, but poisoning and habitat loss took a terrible toll. By 1982 just 22 individuals survived. In a high-stakes gamble to save the species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service captured every remaining California Condor and launched an intensive captive-breeding program that would eventually involve dozens of private and public partners. The effort succeeded. Today more than 300 condors fly free in five flocks across California, Arizona, Utah, and Baja California, Mexico. Another 200 birds live in captivity. Though the species remains critically endangered and highly managed—each bird has a number and most have a GPS or radio tracker—the California Condor’s comeback is among the most famous conservation stories in the world.
This past spring, however, a grave new threat to the species’ survival emerged. The avian influenza that has been devastating birds around the globe since 2021 reached the largest wild flock of California Condors. By the time the crew found 680 incubating his egg without a mate, 21 condors—or one in six members of his flock—were dead.
On April 17 Farry and his colleagues waited outside 680’s cave until he made a rare departure to briefly stretch his wings. They scrambled inside, bundled the precious cargo into a small cooler with hand warmers and towels, and transferred it to their rehabilitation partners at Liberty Wildlife in Phoenix. The clinic staff typically treat a couple of condors a year, usually for lead poisoning. In the past month, they’d received eight infected with the flu, half of which died on site—including 316. Veterinary technician Jan Miller initially had little hope for 316’s chick. Parents usually alternate egg duty, sitting on it to maintain a consistently warm temperature. For three weeks 680 had gone it alone. With tempered expectations, Miller “candled” the egg, illuminating the contents with a bright light. She was looking for blood vessels or an embryo—signs of life. Miller flipped the switch and, amid the rosy glow of the egg’s interior, saw more than she’d hoped for: The embryo moved.
From that moment, tending to the unhatched chick became a round-the-clock, all-hands-on-deck operation. It was the first condor egg they’d ever taken in and, the size of a softball, was too big for the clinic’s brooder, which mechanically mimics how adult birds shift their eggs in the nest. Instead, staff gently rotated it four times a day and carefully monitored its development. “It was stressful, yet exciting at the same time,” Miller says. “All of us were really pulling for this little chick that wasn’t even here yet.”
When the chick began hatching on May 8, they realized something was wrong. It was pipping at the end of the egg, not the center—the avian version of a breech baby. To survive its eggshell birth, the bird needed assistance. Using surgical pliers to remove pieces of the shell, they painstakingly yet briskly freed the tiny condor. The hatchling was alive, but its fate remained uncertain as they swabbed it to test for avian flu. An infected bird couldn’t be sent to The Peregrine Fund’s captive breeding facility, a critical step to one day releasing it to the wild. If the chick had the virus, it would likely die within the week.
vian flu has been around for centuries. Italian farmers first described a contagious disease wiping out their poultry in the 1800s. The virus has since predominantly affected domestic birds, at times leading governments to mandate mass culling. In recent decades, however, the virus has evolved to become lethal to wild birds, too.
A mild version, called low pathogenic avian influenza, is present year-round in some species, particularly waterfowl, and typically doesn’t cause serious illness. But the virus can travel through waste, infect farmed birds, and mutate into a more aggressive form. The highly pathogenic avian influenza, a strain called H5N1, can pass back to wild ducks, geese, and swans, which can carry the virus across oceans and over thousands of miles as they migrate. The last major outbreak in the United States occurred in 2014–2015, causing the deaths of more than 50 million domestic chickens and turkeys along with a few dozen wild birds, mostly geese, before it died out. The death toll of the current wave has far eclipsed that.
The avian influenza in circulation since 2021 can cause severe neurological and respiratory issues and has affected more than 400 bird species in 81 countries. In the United States alone, it is responsible for a record 58 million domestic poultry deaths, and FWS has confirmed or suspected avian flu in more than 33,000 wild birds. The virus has killed raptors and swans, ravens and egrets, hundreds of seabirds, and thousands of ducks. Avian flu has made its way into mammals, too, sporadically infecting raccoons, black bears, and other meat eaters. This has raised fears that the virus could jump to humans and become contagious among people, too. (To date, the only case of human infection reported in this country was a poultry worker who recovered quickly.)
The disaster in wild birds has unfolded with seemingly few possibilities for intervention. Avian researchers, including the FWS waterfowl-banding program staff, have heightened their hygiene and sanitation procedures. State governments have urged duck hunters to steer clear of—and report—any birds that appear sick. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommended that backyard poultry-keepers take down any wild bird feeders.
Yet as humans have learned all too well during the COVID-19 pandemic, containing a virus is a formidable challenge—even more so when it’s carried by organisms that can fly. “It’s really impacted not only conservation, but conservationists,” says Samantha Gibbs, an avian flu expert at FWS. “It’s been shocking and heartbreaking, and people feel a little helpless.”
Biologists watched with dread as condors began getting sick. The scavengers are remarkably hardy, consuming carrion that could carry disease or toxins, thanks to powerfully acidic stomachs. But if a pathogen afflicts them, condors’ extremely social behavior makes them more likely to fall ill and infect others. They eat and roost in groups, and they poop on themselves to stay cool, giving any harmful hitchhikers the opportunity to spread.
Yet condors are so imperiled that they have some advantages. The five wild flocks are intentionally separated by hundreds of miles or more, a safety measure to help ensure that a single disaster or threat doesn’t knock down every group. What’s more, each individual is closely monitored, and condors are used to being handled by humans, since the wild birds are trapped annually for health checks. Responding to the crisis, therefore, felt uniquely feasible. “It’s an opportunity where there are very few opportunities,” Gibbs says.
FWS officials briefly discussed bringing every wild condor into captivity, as they did 40 years ago. But they opted not to after weighing the daunting logistics, the possible dangers from concentrating the entire species during an outbreak, and the fact that the virus was so far restricted to the southwest flock.
Instead, managers watched the birds closely for lethargy or other signs of illness and tightened biosecurity measures. To help prevent super-spreader events, they stopped putting out food and water for wild condors where possible. By the time 316’s chick hatched, the tide of death and disease moving through the southwest flock appeared to be ebbing. Warmer temperatures and longer days had weakened the UV-sensitive virus, and the field team was no longer finding sick condors. But they knew the flu hadn’t loosened its grip elsewhere, and it may only be a matter of time before it returned.
So officials began planning to perform an even more dramatic intervention: vaccinate every single condor against the virus. The effort marks the first attempt to inoculate any birds—wild or domestic—against avian flu in the United States. “We still don’t know if it’ll work,” Gibbs says, “but it’s doing something as opposed to just counting dead birds.”
In May the USDA granted emergency authorization for the vaccine, developed for poultry and used for years in China and other countries with mixed results—mostly due to the challenge of achieving herd immunity among billions of domesticated birds.
It isn’t the first time California Condors have been inoculated against a deadly disease; vaccination protected the endangered vultures from West Nile virus in the early 2000s. Even so, officials are proceeding with great caution. First they tested the avian flu vaccine in Black Vultures, a relative with strong populations, to make sure it is safe and to ensure there was a good immune response. That trial was a success, and this past summer FWS employees vaccinated 16 captive condors. If all goes according to plan, they’ll turn to wild condors next.
n Phoenix, the liberty team spent two anxious days caring for the hatchling, awaiting test results that would spell out its fate. They breathed a sigh of relief when the results came back negative. They also learned the chick is female. Her outlook more certain, she received her official number: 1221. Liberty staff called her Milagra, “miracle” in Spanish.
In order to one day return to the wild, Milagra needed to be raised by condors, not people. So in May, Liberty Wildlife veterinarian Stephanie Lamb flew the week-old bird to The Peregrine Fund’s breeding facility in Boise, where two foster parents awaited. Among California Condors, her adoptive dad, Cuyama (officially known as 27), is a distinguished elder: After hatching in the wild in 1983 he was one of the original condors brought into captivity, where he helped sire and raise the captive-bred population. Leah Esquivel, the group’s propagation manager, put Milagra with Cuyama and his mate, Rotciwi, or 59, because they are gentle and have a track record of caring for chicks that eventually thrive in the wild. Cuyama’s nurturing instincts kicked in immediately. “He just looked around a little bit, and then hopped in and started brooding,” Esquivel says.
Milagra will stay with Cuyama and Rotciwi for around seven months before joining the rest of this year’s 14 captive-hatched chicks for condor school. A mentor bird will teach the youngsters to strengthen their flight muscles, to eat communally, and to navigate social hierarchy. Where they’ll be released, typically in their second summer, is determined mainly by each bird’s DNA. Biologists carefully consider which population is the best fit to maintain genetic diversity—a crucial concern since the species dwindled to so few individuals in the 1980s. The Peregrine Fund’s condor program director, Tim Hauck, hopes Milagra will return to her flock in Arizona.
In the meantime, experts say avian flu will likely come raging back this fall and winter, buoyed by migration and cooler temperatures that make the virus more stable. While condors may have newly acquired resistance, other wild birds won’t have that luxury; it simply isn’t feasible to vaccinate myriad far-flung, free-flying creatures. Species with more robust populations may build up natural immunity after exposure, but biologists remain highly concerned. Where local outbreaks occur, birders, farmers, hunters, and avian researchers will continue to have a role in stemming the spread. “It really is the avian equivalent of a pandemic,” Gibbs says.
For condors, vaccination could help allay one imminent danger, but that alone won’t guarantee their survival. The species still faces other threats, especially the deadly presence of lead in the environment, often introduced by hunters’ ammunition in carcasses the birds scavenge. To truly secure condors’ future, experts agree we need to protect the areas they call home. “That’s the essential piece,” says Ashleigh Blackford, coordinator of the FWS condor recovery program. Healthy landscapes are the real foundation of resilience for every wild bird, including all the ones we could never vaccinate.
While Hauck estimates that losing 21 condors has set back the southwest flock’s recovery by at least a decade, he’s still optimistic about the species’ trajectory. Today, if you’re lucky, you might see a condor soar over the California redwoods or swoop through a Utah canyon. The birds still need help from humans to build their numbers, preserve genetic strength, and face enduring threats. But for the most part, when condors are returned to their land, they thrive. “I don’t know why we always are amazed,” says Farry, who helped rescue Milagra and now roots for her return to the desert. “Millennia of evolution have shaped them into being exceptional at what they do, and then we’re still kind of surprised by it.”
For reasons that aren’t fully understood, condor males outnumber females, making Milagra’s survival even more significant. If she can be released into the wild, she could play a key role in rebuilding her battered flock. Her mother, 316, had raised two other chicks in previous years, but neither survived to adulthood. Milagra is now her last descendant—and a hope for the future of her ancient, iconic species.
This story originally ran in the Fall 2023 issue as “Special Delivery.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.