Avian flu is killing endangered California condors at alarming rate, federal data suggests

The avian influenza stalking wild and domestic bird flocks across the country has killed at least six endangered California condors since March and is suspected of killing another dozen.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it's now attributing all condor deaths in the Arizona-Utah wild flying population to suspected cases of the virus. The deaths represent 15% of the region's condor population.

Observers with The Peregrine Fund first saw a sick condor in northern Arizona on March 9, the wildlife service said. The condor was found dead under her nest 11 days later, and testing confirmed she was positive for the highly contagious flu.

Since then, 17 condors have died and five others are "receiving supporting care" and being tested, the wildlife service said.

The highly contagious avian flu, H5N1, has affected more than 58 million birds in domestic poultry populations and wild flocks across the U.S. and continues to spread, federal officials report.

The spread of avian flu

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says bird flu primarily strikes animals, but it has been detected in at least four human cases in the United States. An 11-year-old girl died of the flu in Cambodia in late February.

Since January 2022, 11 cases of H5N1 have been reported in people. The first 10 were exposed to poultry. Investigation into how the 11th person, a patient in Chile, was infected is ongoing, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on March 30.

Symptoms include eye redness, flulike upper respiratory symptoms that range from mild to severe, fever and body aches.

As of March 10, the H5N1 virus had been detected in wild birds or poultry in 16 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean and in "most of the rest of the world," according to the CDC.

H5N1 has exploded across the U.S. since its first detection here in wild birds in January 2022. The virus has been documented in every state but Hawaii and across every Canadian province. 

Numbered tags are seen underneath the wings of this California Condor photographed north of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. There are 116 birds currently living in the wild north of the canyon along the Arizona Strip and in southwestern Utah.

Other species affected

Millions of chickens and other domestic fowl have been euthanized and the virus has been detected in more than 140 bird species. 

The virus has:

  • Spread to 17 species of wildlife in 22 states, including 60 red fox, 16 harbor seals and 14 striped skunks. 
  • Been documented in more than 777 outbreaks.
  • Resulted in 4,672 reports in wild birds.
  • A study in March concluded bald eagle nest failures were piling up at "an alarming rate" as the adults die after contracting the highly contagious flu from other birds. 

Bald eagles:Dying at an 'alarming rate,' researchers say

How can you help avoid spreading avian flu? 

  • Report dead or injured birds to a state wildlife agency
  • Keep family and pets away from wildlife 
  • Do not feed or handle sick or dead animals
  • Prevent contact between wild and domestic birds
  • Leave young animals alone and allow parents or a wildlife rehabilitator to collect them
An adult California Condor takes flight.

How many California condors are there? 

  • 1982 - Only 22 condors survived in the wild
  • 1987 - The last wild condor was captured
  • 1988 - A captive breeding program began and the first chick was hatched in a cooperative effort with the wildlife service and partners
  • 1992 - Two captive-bred condors were released in Ventura County, California
  • 1994 - Captive condors had laid more than 100 eggs
  • 2006 - First nesting by free flying condors in more than 100 years was documented in Big Sur California.
  • 2022 - The total worldwide population was roughly 561, according to the National Park Service. That includes 347 condors in the five wild flocks.

More condor facts 

The Peregrine Fund shares the following facts about condors:

  • They're one of the largest birds in North America, measuring 9.5 feet from wing tip to wing tip. 
  • They're one of the longest-living raptors and may live to be 50 years old or more
  • Unlike some other birds, there's no difference in physical appearance between male and female condors.
  • Their wing tips point up when they fly, helping to reduce drag and soar for long periods of time.
  • They sleep or roost in tall trees or cliff crevasses
  • Like some other large birds, they poop on their legs when they get hot to stay cool as it evaporates
  • Lead poisoning is responsible for 49.8% of the 253 condor deaths where a cause could be determined since 1992.

Dinah Voyles Pulver covers climate and environment issues for USA TODAY. She can be reached at or at @dinahvp on Twitter.