The Conservation Column
By Pepper Trail
For this month, some exciting news of species survival – and a disease threat to bird populations.
Let’s start with the good news: California Condors are returning to the “State of Jefferson.” Sometime in the month of May, four adolescent (2-3 year-old) condors will be released on the wild redwood coast of northern California near the mouth of the Klamath River. This is the result of a long-term collaboration among the Yurok Tribe, the National Park Service, the Oregon Zoo, and the Peregrine Fund (the latter two groups hatched and captive-reared the young condors).
California Condors, the largest flying birds in North America, once ranged widely in Oregon, and were described (and shot) by Lewis and Clark as they descended the Columbia. The last credible record of the species in Oregon was from Douglas County in 1904. The remnant population in California declined precipitously through the 20th century due to shooting, poisoning, and loss of wilderness habitat, and the species was reduced to 23 birds by the 1980’s. In 1987, the controversial decision was made to capture all the surviving wild condors in an attempt to save the species through captive breeding. This has been very successful, and today the population numbers about 500 condors, with approximately half flying free in Arizona, Utah, Baja California, and southern and central California, and the rest in the captive population. The hope is that the birds being released along the Klamath coast will form a new population that could eventually return this magnificent species to the Pacific Northwest.
This will be a long process. More about the reintroduction plan can be found in this article in the Med-ford Mail Tribune: https://www.mailtribune.com/top-stories/2022/04/17/condors-in-the-redwoods/. The Yurok Tribe and Redwood National Park plan to release 4-6 condors per year for the next 20 years. Condors don’t breed until 6-8 years old, and lay only a single egg per year. Therefore, establishment of a new population will take time. But there is good reason to hope that the wild coast of northern California and southern Oregon will provide excel-lent condor habitat, with a good supply of marine mammal carcasses for food and less risk of lead poisoning than in more populated areas. Poisoning by hunters’ lead ammunition in deer carcasses and gut piles is the major obstacle to establishing self-sustaining wild condor populations.
It is only about 85 miles as the condor flies from the mouth of the Klamath River to Ashland. That is trivial for a California Condor, which can travel 150 miles a day in search of food. So keep your eyes on the sky – you could be the first to spot a California Condor in Jackson County!
Unfortunately, the young condors could face a challenge not anticipated by the recovery program: an outbreak of severe “avian flu” – officially, Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI). In the age of COVID, let me be very clear – this disease is NOT a threat to humans.
HPAI undergoes periodic outbreaks, and in January was confirmed in three species of wild ducks in the Carolinas, be-longing to a strain originating in Europe. Since then, HPAI has spread rapidly throughout the eastern US, and is moving westward. As of this writing (April 19), the disease has not yet been confirmed in Oregon, but has reached Utah and Montana and will almost certainly reach our state. The USDA provides updated data on HPAI in wild birds at this web-site:
Different groups of birds vary greatly in their susceptibility to HPAI. Waterfowl and gamebirds are most vulnerable, which is why the disease is of great concern to poultry producers. Millions of chickens in the East and Midwest have already been destroyed in an attempt to control the spread of the disease in captive flocks.
The vast majority of wild bird deaths documented on the USDA website are waterfowl. If the outbreak had reached Oregon while large numbers of migratory ducks and geese were passing through, the impact could have been severe. Fortunately, most of these birds have already moved north, and hopefully will avoid infection. The next most numerous victims are birds of prey, particularly Bald Eagles, which often feed on dead and dying waterfowl. The disease seems to pose little risk to songbirds: a single American Crow is the only passerine fatality on the extensive USDA list at the time of this writing.
Therefore, there is no reason to take down bird feeders as a precaution against HPAI. As the website of Seattle Audubon states: “…with passerines being the most common visitors to bird feeders, and the frequency of infection in these species being very low indeed, the risk may safely be considered remote. Of much more concern are other easily transmitted infections such as salmonellosis (a bacterial infection), avian pox, and various fungal infections. It is important, therefore, to clean feeders frequently and disinfect them with bleach or vinegar at least once a month.”
Could this HPAI outbreak threaten California Condors? It is conceivable: a number of Black Vultures are listed on the USDA wild bird fatality list. However, the likely route of infection into birds of prey, including vultures, is when those birds feed on dead or dying waterfowl. Condors feed almost exclusively on mammal carcasses; a dead duck would be just a light snack for these huge birds. Thank goodness. California Condors don’t need any other obstacles to their recovery!