Avian Influenza Once Again Found In Georgia Ducks

Mike Bolton | February 9, 2024

Avian influenza can affect migratory species like ducks, so it can easily spread from state to state. It can also be spread by bird species that gather in groups, like vultures, and birds of prey like bald eagles that feed on the carrion of dead birds.

Just weeks after Georgia was declared free of the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, several wild birds in the state have tested positive for the disease again. Georgia DNR Waterfowl Biologist Kara Nitschke says waterfowl hunters should not be alarmed.

A total of nine wood tested positive, as did black vultures in Clarke County, said Nitschke.

Avian influenza is a viral disease. It can be of low pathogenicity, causing mild disease, or high pathogenicity, causing severe illness and death in birds.

Agriculture Commissioner Tyler Harper said 2023 ended with the state free of the disease, but DNR continued its policy of testing any sickly wild birds reported by the public.

“Two seasons ago, the impact was pretty severe, but this go around it was much less severe which tells us that the birds have developed an immunity,” she said. “The first year when a strain of a disease like that comes along is when the birds are most vulnerable. We didn’t see those types of numbers this past duck season. I think it was nine ducks that tested positive. That’s negligible.”

Avian influenza viruses in wild birds is normal, she said. DNR has conducted routine annual surveillance and sampling of wild birds for years.

She said because Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza can affect migratory species like ducks, it can be spread from state to state. It can also be spread in bird species that gather in groups like vultures, and birds of prey like bald eagles that feed on the carrion of dead birds.

Meanwhile, in neighboring South Carolina, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources reported a substantial die-off of wood ducks in waterfowl impoundments and river swamps in Clarendon, Colleton and Williamsburg counties.

Nitschke says such an outbreak is alarming, but she believes that the situation there is different.

“Why that’s different there is a good question,” she said. “You can theorize on that all day long. I think that it can be attributed to the areas where they hunt. You don’t see those kinds of areas so much in Georgia. They have a lot of duck clubs with manmade impoundments that concentrate wood ducks in small areas. We don’t see that so much in Georgia. Our wood ducks here are much more spread out. It’s the nature of the environment. That’s just my theory.”

This strain of the disease was detected in wild birds in Georgia and across much of the U.S. in 2022. The deadly strain was first detected in Georgia that year in a commercial duck breeding operation. Those birds were euthanized to prevent further spread of the disease.

The risk of the disease being transmitted humans is low. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that only one confirmed human infection from the virus in the U.S. That person was working in a commercial poultry operation in Colorado.

Nitschke said any sickly birds should not be handled by the public. She said the birds should be reported to DNR.

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