Coastal Georgia’s bald eagles seem to be having a hard time raising their chicks this year, and wildlife biologists say avian influenza is likely to blame.
The USDA National Veterinary Services has confirmed that three bald eagles found dead, one each in Chatham, Glynn and Liberty counties, have tested positive for bird flu. The birds had contracted the H5N1 126.96.36.199b Eurasian strain.
The coastal outbreak appears to have died down, at least for now, said Bob Sargent, a program manager with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Conservation Section.
“We haven’t had any suspicious eagle cases in the last three to four weeks now,” Sargent said Tuesday. “What we believe has happened is that wintering waterfowl were likely to be the reservoir for the virus and of course, they departed about a month ago so it would make good sense that perhaps this is no longer taking a toll on eagles, at least on the coast.”
Sargent’s annual helicopter surveys of nesting bald eagles have revealed more failed nests – those that did not fledge young – than expected in Georgia’s six coastal counties. Seven nests had dead eaglets on the southern half of the coast. On the survey of the northern half of the coast, postponed a week because of bad weather, half the nests were prematurely empty. The eaglets were too young to have already fledged.
“At that time, the eaglets should have been anywhere between eight and 12 weeks of age.” he said.
Coastal Georgia typically has a high concentration of bald eagle nests, accounting for almost a third of the state’s nests. Chatham County typically leads the state in nest numbers.
Those percentage and absolute numbers held true this year, with a preliminary count of 73 coastal nests. But nesting success is down about 30%, Sargent reported. Fewer than half fledged young, compared to an annual average success rate of 78 percent from 2015-2021.
Avian influenza or bird flu can infect wild and domestic birds, as well as other animals. The strain known as highly pathogenic avian influenza, commonly referred to as HPAI, is worldwide, highly infectious, untreatable and potentially lethal to infected animals. HPAI has been detected in wild birds in more than 30 states this year, the U.S. Agriculture Department reports. Those cases list 11 wild birds in Georgia, including lesser scaup, gadwall, American wigeon and now bald eagle.
The risk of HPAI being transmitted to people is low. To date, no human infections from the current virus (H5N1) have been documented in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
HPAI is typically carried by waterfowl and shorebirds. Eagles could have contracted the virus by preying or scavenging on dead or sick waterbirds (ducks often gather in large groups in coastal waters during winter). Dead bald eagles have been confirmed with HPAI in other Southeastern states, including Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina.
“Eagle are opportunists. They primarily eat fish, but they are known to prey on a variety of other foods, including wintering ducks and coots,” Sargent said. “And if the ducks just happen to be sick, well, that’s going to make them even easier prey for them. And we did have some ducks wash up on the coast. There was one on St. Simons, and there were dead ducks that appeared on south end of Cumberland Island.”
Sargent said the bald eagle population in Georgia is strong and he does not expect HPAI to significantly slow the species’ rebound. Initial survey results of eagle nesting outside the coastal region indicate a success rate on par with previous years. Full survey results are expected by late spring.
DNR is working with the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study and other agencies to investigate mortalities involving wild birds on the coast. Wildlife rehabilitators have been advised.
Sargent said the situation with coastal eagles is “worrisome but not alarming,” because of how well eagles are doing elsewhere.
“Two thirds of the eagle nests in the state exhibit normal reproductive success, and the eagle population in the lower 48 is over 300,000,” he said. “It’s still a state threatened species. In Georgia, it’s still a very uncommon bird. But we have come a long way since the decade of the 70s, where from 1971 to 1980, there wasn’t a single successful nest recorded in the state. Here we are now, we’ve been consistently exceeding 200 nest territories a year since 2016. So the species has come a long way in Georgia.”
To help prevent the spread of HPAI, the public should avoid handling sick or dead birds (CDC recommendations for hunters and game birds), report dead or sick eagles to DNR at (478) 994-1438 and keep pets away from sick or dead birds. Symptoms of HPAI can vary from lethargy to tremors and seizures. However, live birds can be asymptomatic and dead ones may show no obvious signs of trauma.
The Georgia Department of Agriculture (https://agr.georgia.gov) provides guidance regarding commercial poultry operations and backyard flocks. Issues involving poultry should be promptly reported to the Georgia Avian Influenza Hotline, (770) 766-6850 or gapoultrylab.org/avian-influenza-hotline. For concerns about a potential human infection or exposure, please contact your public health department.