A highly contagious bird flu that’s sickening commercial chickens and turkeys is also now spreading among bald eagles. At least 36 bald eagles have died since February, according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The H5N1 strain of the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) has killed bald eagles—the United States’ national bird—in Florida, Nebraska, Ohio, Georgia, Kansas, South Carolina and several other states, according to the data. Eagles suffering from the virus may have seizures and be unable to stand up, reports Jennifer Calfas for the Wall Street Journal.
The deaths are particularly concerning because bald eagles are also now grappling with lead poisoning that stems from ingesting ammunition while eating animals shot by hunters, reported Douglas Main for National Geographic in February. A study of 1,210 eagles in 38 states published in the journal Science earlier this year found that more than half of the birds had chronic lead poisoning. Lead toxicity can impair eagles’ ability to move, prevent them from digesting food and, if they ingest enough of the metal, it can kill them, per National Geographic.
“We are seeing significant mortality,” Victoria Hall, executive director of the University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center, tells the Wall Street Journal. “The better data we can collect about what is happening in these populations, the better we can figure out how we can best support them.”
Bald eagles were abundant in 1782, when the Founding Fathers incorporated the raptor into the new nation’s official seal. Based on anecdotal reporting at the time, upwards of 100,000 bald eagles lived in America, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). As the number of waterfowl, shorebirds and other prey declined in the 1800s, so too did the bald eagle population; people also incorrectly perceived bald eagles as a threat to livestock and shot them.
To help the population rebound, Congress passed the Bald and Gold Eagle Protection Act in 1940, which banned the killing, selling or possessing of the birds. Then, in the late 1940s, the new pesticide DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) began to proliferate, poisoning bald eagles in the process. By 1963, only 417 nesting pairs remained, per the USFWS.
In light of mounting evidence about the dangers of DDT, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned the use of the pesticide in 1972. Bald eagle numbers slowly began to rebound and, by 2018 and 2019, there were more than 70,000 breed pairs in the lower 48 states, according to the USFWS. The U.S. Department of the Interior removed the raptor from the endangered species list in 2007.
Eagles and other wild birds aside, the virus is also sickening millions of commercial birds raised for their eggs and meat across the country—and driving up the price of eggs and poultry in the process. In Iowa, the country’s leading egg-producing state, producers have killed more than 13 million chickens and turkeys affected by the virus. All told, farmers across the country have slaughtered nearly 27 million commercial chickens and turkeys to help stop the spread of the virus, which has been reported in 27 states. This is the deadliest bird flu outbreak since 2014-15, when 50 million chickens and turkeys died either from the virus or in efforts to prevent its spread.
Though animal health experts can’t predict the long-term effects of the virus, many are concerned about the potential impact to the supply chain, food costs and wild bird populations, which are already declining.
Though the virus is harming birds, it’s unlikely to spread among humans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The federal agency notes, however, that humans can become infected if they spend a lot of time around infected birds without wearing proper respiratory or eye protection gear and enough of the virus gets into their nose, mouth, eyes or lungs. Human cases of bird flu are rare but can cause eye infections, upper respiratory symptoms, pneumonia and even death. The virus is not easily spread from person to person, according to the CDC.