A highly contagious and deadly strain of avian flu spreading among farms and wild birds in the United States has been claiming the lives of bald eagles.
Three bald eagles found dead in Georgia tested positive for the new influenza strain, H5N1, the state’s department of natural resources announced this week. The statement also noted that a survey of bald eagles near Georgia’s coast found more “failed nests” than expected, some containing dead eaglets. It wasn’t immediately clear if nest failures were due to avian flu.
Over the past month, H5N1 has also killed eagles in Maine, Ohio, South Dakota and Vermont, NPR reported. Wildlife rehabilitation center Back to the Wild said earlier in April that a dozen deathly ill eagles had been brought in, typically too sick to fly and unsteady on their feet.
“All of them died within hours of admission,” Back to the Wild assistant director Heather Tuttle told local news station WTVG. “One actually died within minutes of admission. When it comes to avian influenza we’ve not had an outbreak like this in our area.”
Once deeply endangered in the lower 48 states, bald eagles are widely considered a major conservation success story. Steve Holmer of the American Bird Conservancy noted in 2018, however, that while eagles are no longer classified as endangered, people must “stay vigilant” to continue to protect the birds.
H5N1 has been detected in 25 states and has also been found in myriad other wild birds, including owls, geese, ducks and vultures. But its biggest toll has been on domestic chickens and turkeys. More than 20 million birds have been killed on farms where the flu has been detected in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus.
Meanwhile, zoos across North America have been keeping their birds inside, fearing that the virus could be devastating if any of the avian residents caught it.
Health officials have said that the risk to human health at this time is low. There’s been only one known case of H5N1 in humans, a person in England who raised birds and was asymptomatic.