In hopes of preventing additional deaths of critically endangered California condors, federal officials have approved the emergency use of a vaccine against the highly contagious avian flu that’s plaguing birds nationwide.
The decision, announced by the United States Department of Agriculture on Tuesday, follows the deaths of 21 California condors in southern Utah and northern Arizona since late March, per the latest numbers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). That total includes 13 deceased birds that laboratory testing has confirmed as positive for Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), also known as the H5N1 bird flu. In addition, two California condors that are being treated at a rescue facility have tested positive for the virus; four additional samples are still pending.
“These birds are critically endangered, closely monitored and their population is very small, which allows close monitoring of the vaccine to ensure it is administered only to the approved population,” per the USDA statement.
But before veterinarians immunize the California condors, which nearly went extinct in the 1980s, officials are first testing the vaccine on vultures in North Carolina. The vultures are a similar species to California condors and will act as a surrogate during the pilot safety study.
The vaccine itself contains a killed, inactivated version of the virus that has been “conditionally licensed” since 2016. The USDA grants conditional licenses to veterinary products that “meet an emergency situation, limited market, local situation or special circumstance,” per the agency.
Federal officials have not revealed when they plan to begin inoculating condors, which are the largest birds in North America, but the process will start with captive birds, as Carlos Sanchez, head veterinarian at the Oregon Zoo, tells the New York Times’ Emily Anthes. The Oregon Zoo is one of four facilities across the nation that run captive breeding programs in partnership with the USFWS to support the birds’ recovery, along with the San Diego Zoo, the Los Angeles Zoo and the Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho.
Swift action would be ideal, as condors are already dealing with threats from lead poisoning and habitat loss. And the slow-to-reproduce scavengers appear to be highly vulnerable to the virus, per Sanchez.
“Once they get it, they tend to have high mortality,” he tells the New York Times.
Amid all the doom and gloom, however, wildlife officials shared a small victory: A rescued California condor egg has hatched in captivity, and the baby chick tested negative for bird flu. Wildlife officials collected the egg from a nesting cave that they suspected was contaminated with the virus, because the hatchling’s mother had contracted HPAI and died.
Veterinarians at Liberty Wildlife, a nonprofit wildlife rehabilitation organization in Arizona, are caring for the chick. Eventually, they’ll give it over to a set of foster parents at the Peregrine Fund’s captive breeding facility to increase its chance of survival if released back to the wild.
In the meantime, the hatchling is bonding with a stuffed California condor.
Through a collaborative, decades-long effort, wildlife officials have slowly helped California condor populations rebound over the last 40 years. In 1982, just 22 of the massive raptors remained in the wild; as of last year, their wild population totals 347, and another 214 are surviving in captivity.
Prior to the avian flu pandemic, the flock that flies freely in Utah and Arizona had 116 California condors. Within the last two months, that group has lost 18 percent of its members, impacting eight breeding pairs. Wildlife officials worry the bird flu outbreak has set back recovery efforts by a “decade or more,” per the Peregrine Fund.
The current North American avian flu outbreak began in December 2021. As it swept across the continent, the virus affected wild and commercial birds alike, including dozens of bald eagles and more than 58 million farmed turkeys and chickens. Testing has detected the virus in more than 6,800 wild birds and 180 mammals.