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Twenty endangered California Condors have died of avian flu this year

A large black vulture, flying, viewed from below against a blue sky
Phil Armitage
California condors in the Southwest have been infected with avian flu.

Twenty endangered California condors have died of avian influenza this year. Ashleigh Blackford, California Condor Coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said there are three populations of these wild birds in North America – one in California, one in Baja California, and one that spans the border of Utah and Arizona.

“Right now, the Arizona-Utah flock, that's our only population that has tested positive for HPAI,” Blackford said.

Blackford said this strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) may have been introduced by migratory birds.

“Condors are highly susceptible because of their community roosting and their community feeding behaviors," Blackford said. "Given the social behavior of the condor, I think there's a lot of different places where it can be transmitting bird to bird."

Out of approximately 115 condors in the Utah-Arizona flock, 20 have died of HPAI since March 30. Prior to this, biologists were beginning to look at condor blood serum to see if they had any antibodies for the virus.

“So sometimes you get a flu, and you're just fine, right?" Blackford said. "So that was a potential outcome. And it just, unfortunately, doesn't appear that that is the case in this situation."

At this time, all confirmed HPAI-positive condors are from northern Arizona, and field teams have not collected a deceased condor in the area since April 11.

Blackford said they are doing their best to minimize the impact to the population.

“For us right now, it's such a fluid and evolving situation," Blackford said. "Our goal is to come out after this outbreak with an ability to rebound and continue the recovery program."

To prevent future outbreaks, the USDA is exploring the possibility of vaccinating these endangered birds.

Caroline Long is a science reporter at UPR. She is curious about the natural world and passionate about communicating her findings with others. As a PhD student in Biology at Utah State University, she spends most of her time in the lab or at the coyote facility, studying social behavior. In her free time, she enjoys making art, listening to music, and hiking.