A deadly strain of the bird flu is threatening the already endangered California condor population, prompting a large-scale vaccination effort that is about to get underway.
The bird flu has already killed at least 13 condors and with less than 350 in the wild, there is a sense of urgency to start vaccinating the population.
The California condor is the largest flying bird in North America with a wingspan as wide as nine and a half feet.
“The California condor is a very resilient, intelligent, highly social species and as soon as you look past their looks, you’ll realize that these birds are amazing,” said Ventana Wildlife Society Executive Director Kelly Sorenson.
The giant vultures soar to impressive heights and can fly as far as 200 miles in one day.
“They’re not just our garbage disposals out there. They have very intricate social lives and to me, that’s what really got me hooked,” Sorenson said.
The condor population dropped to just 22 in the 1980s, but thanks to captive breeding, the population has since rebounded into the hundreds.
“They are very inspiring in some way. I don’t know if it’s their size and how they move through the landscape or the fact that they’ve been able to work their way back from almost extinction,” said Ashleigh Blackford, California Condor Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The latest setback to the California condor is a deadly and highly contagious strain of the bird flu which has hit Arizona’s population and could spread to California.
“It’s a scary time for condors, but I still believe in my heart that they can get past all of these hurdles and once again thrive on their own,” Sorenson said.
The USDA has granted emergency use authorization for a bird flu vaccine.
Trials are underway right now with smaller vultures.
If the vaccine works and is safe, the next step is vaccinating the captive and then the wild condor population, which is already microchipped.
“We’re not gonna have to hike out into the wilderness, we’re gonna be able to capture them,” Blackford explained.
The vaccine could be one stronger dose or two doses three weeks apart.
The vaccination effort could begin as soon as June.
“Given that this is the very, very first time that any bird will be vaccinated for avian influenza in the United States, we are moving very quickly,” Blackford said.
Wildlife experts say that this strain of bird flu is likely being spread by other vultures migrating from South America.
The Ventana Wildlife Society is using webcams to watch the Central Coast’s condor populationand look for any signs of illness.