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23 bald eagles have died from the HPAI virus

At least 23 bald eagles have died from a highly infectious new bird flu strain 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 died in Indian River County since the virus was first detected in Florida in January, state data shows. 

Eagles make up just a fraction of the “several thousand” estimated cases of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) among Florida’s wild ducks, vultures, owls, pelicans and several other species, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute spokesperson Carly Jones. 

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HPAI threatens bald eagles

The nation’s bald eagle population has largely thrived over the past three decades, despite the threats of car collisions, habitat loss, powerline electrocutions and lead poisoning — its greatest threat, according to Jack Davis, a Pulitzer Prize winner and author of the recent book “The Bald Eagle: The Improbable Journey of America’s Bird.” 

“It is sad to see the flu’s impact on all birds and will be equally sad if the flu reverses the bald eagle’s comeback,” Davis said in an email to TCPalm. “It and wildlife officials worked hard to restore the population, and Americans have only recently gotten to know and to appreciate the species after more or less living without it for decades.” 

Florida has an estimated 1,500 nesting 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 U.S. last year and in Florida this 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 Florida’s first known outbreak of HPAI, with a “significant mortality event” of hundreds of scaup ducks and other species documented along the state’s east coast, according to FWC. Wildlife officials are calling the outbreak “unprecedented.” 

Florida is behind only North Dakota and North Carolina for most confirmed HPAI cases in wild birds, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture data as of May 6. North Dakota had 197 cases, North Carolina had 143 and Florida had 74.

The number of unconfirmed cases in all states is likely much higher, experts say. 

Can people get bird flu?

Bird flu can be transmitted to people, but it’s 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 nation to test positive for this strain, showing mild symptoms of fatigue, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment announced April 28.

The public should avoid handling sick or dead birds. If you have to handle them, wear disposable gloves and wash well afterward. Keep wild birds away from pets and poultry. 

“Because (bird flu) is very contagious and not treatable in wild birds … some wildlife rehabbers may not be accepting these animals at this time,” the institute posted on Facebook.

As of Monday, May 2, 2022 at least 23 Florida counties had confirmed cases of bird flu in wild bird populations, according to the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.

Which birds get HPAI bird flu?

While some infected species won’t show symptoms, others can appear lethargic or show “severe neurologic signs,” including circling, tremors and seizures, according to FWC. Birds are often found dead with no signs of trauma.

The virus is often fatal in chickens or turkeys. In Florida, no domestic poultry has 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. 

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