Avian influenza detected in bald eagles in Georgia

Nesting success along the coast has dropped 30% this year
calendar icon 21 April 2022
clock icon 2 minute read

Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) has been detected in bald eagles in Georgia. The pathogen's presence has likely undercut nesting success for eagles in the state’s coastal counties, according to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

HPAI has been detected in wild birds in more than 30 states this year, the US Agriculture Department (USDA) reports. Those cases list 11 wild birds in Georgia, including lesser scaup, gadwall, American wigeon and now bald eagle.

Samples from three bald eagles found dead, one each, in Chatham, Glynn and Liberty counties tested as suspected positive last month at the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study in Athens. Those results were recently confirmed as HPAI (H5N1 Eurasian strain) by the USDA National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Ames, Iowa. Other eagle carcasses are also being checked.

In Georgia’s six coastal counties, annual DNR aerial surveys of nesting bald eagles have revealed more failed nests – those that did not fledge young – than expected. Some nests had dead eaglets. Others were missing young that usually would not have left the nest yet, according to survey leader Dr. Bob Sargent, a program manager with DNR’s Wildlife Conservation Section.

Citing preliminary findings, Sargent estimated that nest success along the coast this year is down about 30%. Although the 73 nests documented was normal, he said fewer than half fledged young, compared to an annual average success rate of 78% from 2015-2021.

About a third of the eagle nests in Georgia are in the coastal counties. 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 rafts in coastal waters during winter). Dead bald eagles have been confirmed with HPAI in other Southeastern states, including Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina.

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 eagles 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.

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