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California condors face bird flu on the run from extinction


LOS ANGELES (AP) — The California condor is facing the deadliest strain of avian flu in U.S. history, and the outbreak could endanger the iconic 10-foot (3.05-meter) wingspan vulture, decades after conservationists saved the species from extinction.

But nine newly hatched chicks, covered in fluffy white feathers, give condor keepers at the Los Angeles Zoo hope that after 40 years of aggressive efforts, the endangered population of North America’s largest soaring landbirds will thrive again.

With fewer than 350 condors left in the wild — in herds stretching from the Pacific Northwest to Baja California, Mexico — the historic outbreak means that continued captive breeding and re-wilding programs like the LA Zoos remain essential.

In the past year and a half, millions of birds have died in the US from bird flu, including more than 430 bald eagles and about 58 million turkeys and commercial chickens that were euthanized to prevent the spread of the disease. Bird flu is also suspected in the deaths of dozens of seals last summer off the coast of Maine.

The species is already believed to have caused the deaths of at least 22 California condors in Arizona, which were part of a Southwest herd that typically accounts for one-third of the species’ total wild population.

Experts are now concerned that the species could further affect condors by rapidly spreading across state lines during spring migration. More than two dozen environmental advocates this week urged the federal government to expedite the approval of a vaccine to be given to both wild and captive condors.

The advocates, including the Center for Biological Diversity, warned in a letter that the flu strain “endangers the very existence” of the famous bird.

“The California condor is once again threatened with extinction and again an emergency vaccination campaign is needed to prevent a deadly infection and possible extinction,” they wrote, citing the success of West Nile virus. vaccine for condors in the early 2000s.

As the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act approaches, conservationists say the species still can’t sustain itself without human intervention — even though humans are also responsible for many of its losses beyond bird flu, including deaths from lead poisoning.

“I think some behavioral changes are needed from the people on the planet so that we can really address the threats to the species,” said Ashleigh Blackford, the California condor coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Despite a California law banning it for hunting, lead ammunition is still readily used. The condors scavenge flesh from dead animals, felled by the lead ammunition, and fall ill – often fatally.

“It’s really hard to watch a bird you raised come back and die in your arms,” ​​says Chandra David, a condor keeper at the Los Angeles Zoo, who has a tendency to poison condors with lead. returned to the zoo for treatment. “And there’s nothing we can do about that.”

Still, spring is a time of hope. Breeding programs in the US and Mexico hatch chicks and online “condor cams” provide live feeds for fans.

“It’s a funny strain because it’s really not your typical charismatic strain, is it? They are a bit on the ugly side. Most people don’t like vultures, but this one in particular[is different],” said Blackford.

Either way, the condor looms large in California culture – even if it’s not the official state bird (that’s the California quail). The mascot of the Los Angeles Clippers is Chuck the Condor and one of the flying birds is prominently displayed in the state district.

The population was nearly wiped out by hunting during the California Gold Rush, as well as poisoning from the toxic pesticide DDT and lead ammunition.

In the 1980s, all 22 California condors left in the wild were controversially captured and put into captive breeding programs to save the species. Zoo-bred birds were first released into the wild in 1992, and in the years since, they’ve been reintroduced to habitats they’d disappeared from — including the ancestral lands of the Yurok tribe of Northern California. The ongoing efforts to go wild again are considered a conservation success.

“It’s taken decades for species to go extinct and in many cases it will take decades to bring them back,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

The condor is intrinsically linked to various Native American tribes in the West. For example, the Havasupai people say that the condor allowed their ancestors to fly from the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the top — its wings created the famous stripes.

For the Yurok Tribe, the work of bringing back the condors highlights how Native Americans are reclaiming their traditional role as stewards of the land — “which was a role that was forcibly taken away from us after contact,” said Tiana Williams-Claussen, director of the tribe’s wildlife department.

Known as prey-go-neesh in Yurok, the revered condor disappeared from the region in the late 19th century. In 2021, building on a promise made by tribal leaders in 2003, Williams-Claussen and her team watched captive-bred condors fly over Yurok land for the first time in more than a century.

The tribe hopes to release four to six captive-bred birds into the wild each year for the next two decades.

“Ultimately, of course, our goal is to have birds with no tags, no transmitters, that can just integrate back into our ecosystem,” Williams-Claussen said, “back into our cultural ways of life.”

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.