Inside the Race to Save a Single Condor Egg After Avian Flu Killed Its Mother

How a long-shot rescue turned into an all-hands-on-deck mission to hatch a California Condor in captivity.
The chick in the rescued egg, laid by condor 316, was poorly positioned and required an “assisted hatch” by veterinarian Stephanie Lamb. Here she carefully cuts away the egg. Photo: Karine Aigner

The Discovery 

For the people who work with California Condors in the cliffs and canyons of the southwest U.S., March was devastating. In a few short weeks, highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) swept through the flock in Arizona, killing as many as 21 birds. Staff from The Peregrine Fund, a raptor-focused conservation group that leads condor restoration in the region, spent their days collecting sick and dying birds from the desert landscape and closely tracking each individual in the flock for signs of illness. Most concerning was if a condor settled in one spot and stopped moving—as when condor 316 made her way into a cliffside cave in mid-March and didn’t budge. 

“It was very nerve-wracking,” says Shawn Farry, the on-site condor program manager. Farry worried that 316 had contracted the virus that was killing her flock-mates, but it was also the time of year when a condor might hunker down for another reason: to lay an egg. And indeed, 316 was holed up with a male. “We were hopeful that maybe it was just breeding behavior and that she wasn’t symptomatic,” Farry says. But as the team would soon learn, “Unfortunately, both can be true at the same time.”

On March 25, condor 316 reemerged from the cave. From her lethargic movements, the team could tell she was truly sick. Capturing her in that condition was easy, and the team transported her to their rehabilitation partners at Liberty Wildlife in Phoenix, Arizona. Back at the cliff, 316’s mate was staying put. “We were like, oh no,” says Tim Hauck, director of The Peregrine Fund’s condor program. “This probably isn’t a good thing for him to be in this dark, wet cave where we knew there was an infectious disease.” 

Monitoring the male, condor 680, was complicated by the location of his hideaway high on a cliff face. But in mid-April, a crew member checking in on him caught a glimpse inside the cave and spotted a nest—and an egg. For 680, that was bad news. A California Condor egg takes around 57 days to hatch, quadruple the time for many songbirds. “And you can't let that egg go cold,” Hauck says. Both sexes sit on the egg, trading off every three to five days. The team estimated 680 had been solo incubating for around three weeks, and the egg likely had about another month to go. “We didn't want to see him succumb to HPAI because he was so dedicated,” Hauck says. Moreover, his chances of hatching the egg alone were “slim to none.”

The Rescue 

With the outlook so bleak, the team decided to retrieve the egg—mostly for the sake of 680. Removing the egg would give him the chance to leave the dank, potentially infectious cave and seek food and water. Besides, Hauck says, “We thought that the egg was probably dead.”

Still, they made a careful, if somewhat scrappy, plan to collect the egg with a cooler, towels, and hand warmers. On April 17, 680 left the nest to stretch his wings. The crew took the opportunity to hike down into the cave, gently bundle up the egg, and carry it back out.

Staff from The Peregrine Fund and Liberty Wildlife then relayed the cooler to Liberty's clinic, a four-and-a-half-hour drive away, where the care team received the egg with tempered expectations. They’d spent the preceding weeks in crisis mode caring for flu-infected condors, and despite their utmost effort, many birds didn’t make it. Among the dead was 316, who laid the egg. Like the on-site crew, the clinic staff initially just hoped removing the egg would give 680 a shot at survival. But then Jan Miller, animal care coordinator, “candled” the egg, holding it to a bright light to illuminate its contents. If the egg contained a developing embryo, she would be able to see a rosy glow of blood vessels or even movement. She saw both. Immediately, Miller says, the mood shifted to: “Oh my god, it’s actually viable!”

Although the surface of the egg had tested negative for HPAI, The Peregrine Fund decided not to risk introducing the disease to their breeding facility in Boise, Idaho—the largest captive population of California Condors in the world. Miller and the rest of the animal care team at Liberty took on the responsibility of hatching 316’s last egg.

Jan Miller, animal care coordinator at Liberty Wildlife, provides water for California Condors rehabbing at the facility's flight cages. Photo: Karine Aigner

“We incubate and hatch eggs here all the time,” Miller says, from songbirds to Great Horned Owls—but never a condor. Full-grown California Condors are among the largest birds in North America, with a wingspan of nearly 10 feet, and their eggs are bigger than any Liberty had ever incubated. The egg didn’t fit in the clinic’s brooder, a rocking device that mimics how adult birds shift their eggs in the nest, so the Liberty staff marked the egg and rotated it by hand six times a day, while also carefully controlling the temperature and humidity and monitoring the embryo through candling. 

By the time the egg arrived, the wave of HPAI that hit the southwest flock seemed to be passing—no more sick condors were brought to the clinic, and the ones still in their care seemed to be recovering—but taking charge of the egg brought a whole new kind of anxiety. “If we had to go walk the hallway to candle it, everybody's like, get outta the way! Get outta the way!” Miller says. “Precious cargo!”

The Hatch 

For three weeks the Liberty care team fastidiously tended to the egg. The embryo seemed to be developing normally, but there was still concern that the condor growing inside could harbor HPAI, passed through 316. If that were the case, the egg would likely never hatch. If a chick did emerge, it wouldn’t survive for long.

On May 8, the egg pipped: The chick inside cracked a tiny hole through the shell, the first step of hatching. But there was a problem. Rather than pipping at the egg’s vertical midpoint, the chick had broken through at the egg’s end, indicating it was misaligned and wouldn’t be able to free itself from the egg. “Kind of like a breach baby,” Miller says. “We needed to help it hatch.”

The egg of condor 316, who died of the HPAI virus, begins hatching while in the care of Liberty Wildlife. Photo: Karine Aigner
The team at Liberty Wildlife watches as veterinarian Stephanie Lamb assists the hatching baby condor. Photo: Karine Aigner
With the embryo poorly position in the egg, Lamb had to perform an “assisted hatch," carefully cutting away the egg from the hatching chick. Photo: Karine Aigner
Lamb presents the healthy newborn to an overjoyed room. Photo: Karine Aigner

Condors typically take 72 hours from pip to hatch, but by the next day it was clear the chick had used up its store of air inside and needed to emerge. Veterinarian Stephanie Lamb gloved up. Using surgical pliers, she delicately removed fragments of shell, one small piece at a time. The Liberty Wildlife team crowded around, while Hauck and other staff from The Peregrine Fund watched on a live feed. Lamb picked off pieces of shell, now with her fingers, and suddenly they could all see the squirming chick. The rest happened quickly. Just five minutes after picking up the egg, Lamb was cradling a tiny, pink condor the size of her hand, with a bulbous bald head and wispy white feathers. 

The room filled with quiet oohs and laughter as the team got their first look at the condor. Watching the live feed, Hauck says, “I kind of freaked out a little bit. We all did.” He was overwhelmed thinking of the chick’s parents, especially its mother. Condor 316 had raised two other chicks in previous years, but neither had survived to adulthood. “She actually left behind a bit of a legacy,” Hauck says, “something that will go forward.”

Lamb immediately swabbed the hatchling for HPAI. If the test came back negative, the chick could join the captive flock at Boise. Most critically, it would be able to be placed with foster parents—actual adult condors—which would dramatically increase the chances it could be released in the wild. That would never happen if the chick got too familiar with humans. To help prevent that from happening, the Liberty team placed the chick with a nearly life-size condor plush toy—a gift to the clinic they happened to have on hand—while they awaited the HPAI test results and donned full-coverage camouflage during feedings.

Liberty Wildlife's Jan Miller puts on a ghillie suit before she feeds the baby condor. The staff is careful to not habituate the chick to humans or food coming from humans. Photo: Karine Aigner
Veterinarian Stephanie Lamb applies betadine to the baby condor’s belly button while she undergoes a physical in order to get her medical certificate that will allow her to fly to Boise. Photo: Karine Aigner
Megan Mosby, executive director at Liberty Wildlife, holds up the official document confirming that the baby condor, named “Milagra” (meaning Miracle in Spanish), is negative for the HPAI virus. Photo: Karine Aigner
Stofko feeds 1221 in her incubator, a condor plush close by to help avoid imprinting. Photo: Karine Aigner

The Adoption 

Two days later, good news arrived: The new chick was free of avian flu and could go to Boise, where Leah Esquivel, The Peregrine Fund’s propagation manager, waited to place it with foster parents. The clock was ticking, Esquivel says. “They do have good facial recognition, and this chick was getting older by the minute,” she says, “So I was just wanting to get it under those parents and have it stop staring at our faces all the time.”

But that meant introducing the days-old chick, who weighed less than a pound, to two adult California Condors that hadn’t hatched it. Usually, the process goes well; the foster parents’ nurturing instincts kick in right away, and they care for the chick as their own. But there is always the risk that the birds won’t accept the interloper and instead attack—a quick end for a defenseless chick.

In Phoenix, most of the Liberty staff said their goodbyes. The chick, who turned out to be female, was now officially condor 1221. In Boise, they were calling her “the Liberty chick.” But to the team that hatched her, she was Milagra, Spanish for “miracle.” They hoped her good luck would hold and sent her off with Lamb in a single-propeller plane, flown by a friend of The Peregrine Fund, so small that Miller and another Liberty staffer had to catch a commercial flight to help welcome the chick to Idaho.

Veterinarian Stephanie Lamb preps Milagra for her trip to Boise where she will be raised by surrogate parents (top). Lamb gazes out the window of a Cessna Turbo 210 owned and flown by Don Reiman, who volunteers his plane and service for the Peregrine Fund. Photos: Karine Aigner

Esquivel selected a superlatively gentle duo to receive the chick. “They are just so, so sweet with each other,” she says. They are also seasoned parents: The pair successfully fostered a chick together last year, and have each raised many more with other mates—all fosters in the case of the female, condor 59, called Rotciwi. The male, Cuyama, is condor 27. Hatched in the wild in 1983, he was once among the last two dozen California Condors in the world. 

But there was a complication: Rotciwi and Cuyama were already caring for a foster chick. Wild condors hatch a single chick at a time, and while double brooding in captivity is possible, Esquivel wanted to minimize risks for 1221. Esquivel and her team decided to remove the first chick from Rotciwi and Cuyama and place it with other foster parents. Then, Esquivel would introduce 1221. She was a little nervous, because 1221 was half a week older than the chick she would replace. “It doesn’t sound like a lot, but they grow so fast,” Esquivel says, “That was a little scary when we did the swap, to feel the difference in the chicks’ size.”

To everyone’s relief, the exchange went smoothly. Cuyama was the first to inspect 1221. “He just looked around a little bit, and then hopped in and started brooding,” Esquivel says. “It was like nothing happened.”

Leah Esquivel, propagation manager for the Peregrine Fund, shows Liberty Wildlife staff how her team monitors breeding condor nests. The Peregrine Fund has a hands-off approach with as little human intervention as possible. Esquivel and her team waited for the new chick's foster parents to leave the nest on their own before placing condor 1221 in her temporary home. Photo: Karine Aigner

The Future  

The road to release is still a long one for condor 1221. She will stay with her foster parents for the next 6-8 months, growing rapidly. After that, she’ll join the other condors hatched in Boise this year in a pre-release pen, where she’ll practice flying and learn condor social etiquette from an older mentor bird—a role her foster mom, Rotciwi, held for eight years. If 1221 can be released, it will likely happen in September 2024.

Wild condors now number in the hundreds, but their recovery is still highly managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and dozens of partner organizations. Precisely where each captive-bred condor gets released depends, in large part, on the bird’s genetics to ensure each flock is as diverse as possible. FWS won’t finalize those decisions until early next year, but everyone who has worked with 1221 hopes she’ll be returned to the flock in Arizona, which lost so many condors to HPAI this spring. Hauck says he sees no reason why that wouldn’t happen. “I'm going to fight like hell to make sure that it does,” he says.

With 1221 now past the scariest milestones, the many people who had a hand in her rescue can relax a little. “I’m incredibly relieved,” Esquivel says. The staff at Liberty Wildlife, Miller says, can finally breathe. But for all the stress, shepherding Milagra into the world was also a welcome reprieve after weeks of caring for sick and dying condors. Megan Mosby, Liberty’s executive director, says, “She really did represent a sense of hope in what had been a really bleak period of time.”

The Peregrine Fund's Leah Esquivel closes a curtain around Milagra, who was delivered safely to her new temporary home in Boise, where she will be raised by a captive, surrogate condor pair. Alex Stofko and Jan Miller of Liberty Wildlife say their tearful goodbyes. Photo: Karine Aigner

Things are looking up for the species, as well. HPAI seems to have abated in the southwest flock with the return of longer days and warmer weather. Meanwhile, the United States Department of Agriculture recently announced emergency authorization to inoculate California Condors against avian flu. Vaccination trials are currently underway with Black Vultures, a condor relative. 

As for condor 680, 1221’s biological father, removing the egg was a success: The adult bird has remained healthy. “He seems to have dodged a bullet,” Hauck says.

Out of an abundance of caution, The Peregrine Fund is still holding off on supplying food and water for the birds as they did before the arrival of HPAI. According to Farry, the flock is doing fine without the help.

Despite the calamitous spring, Farry says the team is keeping their spirits up. Maybe it comes with the job: “If you work on condors, you have to be optimistic,” he says. “We can all hope for the day that 1221 has a chick out there of her own.”