At least 23 bald eagles have died from a new strain of highly contagious bird flu spreading through Florida’s wild bird populations, according to state wildlife data.
Brevard County leads the state with eight eagle deaths. At least one eagle has died in Indian River County since the virus was first detected in Florida in January, according to state data.
Eagles represent only a fraction of the “several thousand” estimated cases of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) among wild ducks, vultures, owls, pelicans and several other species in Florida, according to Carly Jones, word of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.
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HPAI threatens bald eagles
The country’s bald eagle population has largely thrived over the past three decades, despite threats from car collisions, habitat loss, electrocution on power lines and lead poisoning – its greatest threatens, according to Jack Davis, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of the recent book “The Bald Eagle: The Improbable Voyage of the American Bird.”
“It is sad to see the impact of the flu on all birds and it will be equally sad if the flu negates the return of the bald eagle,” Davis said in an email to TCPalm. “That and wildlife officials worked hard to restore the population, and Americans only came to know and appreciate the species after decades of more or less living without it.”
Florida has about 1,500 breeding pairs of bald eagles, one of the largest concentrations in the lower 48 states, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).
‘Unprecedented’ bird flu outbreak
This strain was first documented in the United States last year and in Florida in January after a hunter killed a blue-winged teal duck in Palm Beach County, according to the institute. Since then, it had spread to at least 23 Florida counties as of May 2.
This is the first known outbreak of HPAI in Florida, with a “significant mortality event” of hundreds of scaup ducks and other species documented along the state’s eastern seaboard, according to FWC. Wildlife officials call the outbreak “unprecedented.”
Florida is behind only North Dakota and North Carolina in most confirmed cases of HPAI in wild birds, according to the latest data from the US Department of Agriculture as of May 6. North Dakota had 197 cases, North Carolina 143 and Florida 74.
The number of unconfirmed cases in all states is likely much higher, experts say.
Can people catch bird flu?
Bird flu can be transmitted to humans, but it is rare and “low risk”, according to the institute.
A Colorado inmate who was exposed to poultry infected with bird flu is the first person in the country to test positive for the strain, showing mild symptoms of fatigue, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment announced on April 28.
The public should avoid handling sick or dead birds. If you must handle them, wear disposable gloves and wash well afterwards. Keep wild birds away from pets and poultry.
“Because (bird flu) is highly contagious and cannot be treated in wild birds…some wildlife rehabilitation centers may not accept these animals at this time,” the institute posted on Facebook.
Which birds get HPAI avian influenza?
While some infected species show no symptoms, others may appear lethargic or show “severe neurological signs,” including circling, shaking and convulsing, according to FWC. Birds are often found dead without any signs of trauma.
The virus is often fatal in chickens or turkeys. In Florida, no domestic fowl contracted the virus, but in Indiana tens of thousands of turkeys were euthanized in February, according to the Indianapolis Star, a USA TODAY Network site.
Birds can spread the virus through feces, saliva and nasal secretions, according to FWC. All species of birds can contract the virus, but the most susceptible are raptors, scavengers, waterfowl and waterfowl.
Black vultures appear to be one of the most susceptible species to the outbreak and strain in Florida, Jones said. Muscovy ducks have also tested positive statewide. Other bird species at risk, according to FWC, include:
Songbirds are generally at low risk of being carriers of bird flu, but “it cannot be ruled out” that species that feed on birds could harbor the virus, according to the FWC. Still, the agency suggests cleaning birdbaths and feeders with a 10 percent bleach solution or one part bleach mixed with nine parts water.
How to report sick, dead or injured birds
You can help Florida biologists investigate the bird flu outbreak by reporting any sightings of sick or dead birds. Observations help biologists understand where outbreaks are occurring in real time and help inform response efforts.
Max Chesnes is an environmental reporter for TCPalm who focuses on issues facing the Indian River Lagoon, St. Lucie River and Lake Okeechobee. You can follow Max on Twitter @MaxChesnesemail him at firstname.lastname@example.org and call him at 772-978-2224.