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Northern California tribe working to prevent avian flu outbreak among condors

A California condor bird flies in the air facing left. It's wings are spread out far, the background is blurry.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
A California condor flying above the Los Padres National Forest in Southern California.

The first documented outbreak of avian flu in California condors in the Southwest is alarming groups trying to reintroduce this critically endangered bird in Humboldt County.

Wildlife officials have confirmed the recent deaths of 18 California condors in the Arizona-Utah region. At least six so far have tested positive for the avian flu, a highly contagious disease.

“We weren’t sure if condors were going to catch it, because of course vultures are very resistant to disease," said Tiana Williams-Claussen, wildlife department director for the Yurok Tribe. "That’s part of their strength. And many diseases that can take down other birds or even other species don’t impact them at all.”

Last May, the Yurok Tribe reintroduced California condors back into Redwood National Park for the first time in over 100 years. The species was nearly driven to extinction by the 1980's, before conservationists captured the last remaining condors and launched a successful captive breeding program.

Only eight of these critically endangered condors have been released in Northern California. The birds play an important role in Yurok culture.

Williams-Claussen says an outbreak here could be disastrous.

“I mean unfortunately one of the beautiful strengths of condors — which is their very social behavior — would be one of the downfalls here," she said. "Because they would very easily transmit it to each other if one of them were to get sick.”

Williams-Claussen said the Northern California flock is very isolated, so if these condors were to catch the disease, it would be from another bird species or from humans.

While no condors in California have caught the disease, Williams-Claussen said it's active in other bird species in the region. According to the USDA, this strain of avian flu has recently been found in wild raven and turkey vultures in Humboldt County. Both condors, ravens and vultures can be scavengers, and can sometimes been seen feeding on the same animal corpse.

She said wildlife staff are taking extra precautions like donning protective gear to avoid contamination when handling animal carcasses to feed them.

Williams-Claussen added the tribe is also raising money to expand their quarantine facilities. Right now, she said they have limited space to isolate the birds if they do get sick.

Roman Battaglia is a regional reporter for Jefferson Public Radio. After graduating from Oregon State University, Roman came to JPR as part of the Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism in 2019. He then joined Delaware Public Media as a Report For America fellow before returning to the JPR newsroom.