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Avian Influenza Impacts Birds Across Georgia

The current strain of 'bird flu' has hit pockets of vultures particularly hard and has also been found in bald eagles and waterfowl.

Mike Bolton | November 15, 2022

Avian influenza can impact a wide variety of birds, but vultures seem to be among the hardest hit by this year’s strain.

For Jenkins County landowner Robert Jenkins, it was a ghoulish scene right out of the Alfred Hitchcock movie “The Birds.”

“They were logging on my property and they came to me and said that I had a lot of dead birds around my ponds,’” he said. “I went back there to see, and there were dead turkey vultures everywhere. Probably 100, or maybe even more.

“I called DNR and they came out and took two or three of the dead birds to the University of Georgia for testing. The test came back, and it was avian flu,” Robert said.

The landowner’s experience is one that is occurring in pockets all around Georgia. The highly contagious strain of the viral disease threatens not only turkey vultures, but also ducks, geese, turkeys, bald eagles, songbirds and even commercial chicken operations.

Thus far, the outbreak has affected mostly turkey vultures in Georgia. More than 700 dead turkey vultures were found at the Noah’s Ark Animal Sanctuary in Locust Grove in Henry County in August. Those birds were found to have HPAI H5NI— the current stain of the ‘bird flu’ virus. As a result, many of the more than 500 resident birds there including its emu and ostrich populations were euthanized.

Dead turkey vultures have been found at the Buford Trout Hatchery just below the Lake Lanier dam.

The disease has also been detected in bald eagles in Georgia, according to DNR. Samples from dead bald eagles found in Chatham, Glynn and Liberty counties tested positive for bird flu back in April.

In Georgia’s six coastal counties, annual DNR aerial surveys of nesting bald eagles revealed more failed nests than usual. 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. He estimated that nest success along the coast this year is down about 30%. About a third of the eagle nests in Georgia are in the coastal counties.

Avian flu has also been documented in several ducks in Georgia, including lesser scaup, gadwall and American wigeon, according to DNR.

According to a Nov. 3 CDC report, bird flu outbreaks in wild birds and poultry continue across the U.S. in 2022.

“The country is approaching a record number of birds affected compared to previous bird flu outbreaks. Since early 2022, more than 49 million birds in 46 states have either died as a result of bird flu virus infection or have been culled (killed) due to exposure to infected birds. This number is nearing the 50.5 million birds in 21 states that were affected by the largest bird flu outbreak that occurred in 2015,” the CDC report said.

Most strains of avian flu primarily impact farmed poultry.

“This one actually is affecting wild birds at a higher rate than we have seen in other strains of avian influenza, particularly waterfowl, wetland birds and raptors,” said Taylor Finger, DNR Migratory Game Bird Biologist for the state of Wisconsin, in an interview with WBAY television in Green Bay. However, he said there is little concern it would impact wild turkeys. “Wild turkeys have to come in contact with something that would be carrying avian influenza, and in most cases turkeys and waterfowl aren’t interacting, and in no cases is it at a huge level in terms of a large number of turkeys interacting with waterfowl and then passing it along. So not saying that wild turkeys would never get it, but the likelihood is very low.”

No human infections from the current virus have been documented in the U.S. The federal agency says the risk of it being transmitted to people is low, but waterfowl hunters are recommended to wear gloves when cleaning game and to avoid touching their mouths and eyes. Robert Jenkins says he was told by officials to not take any chances.

“The people from DNR told me to wash my shoes in Clorox and to not handle any of the dead birds,” he said. “I asked them what I needed to do with the dead birds. They said to just leave them where they are and let them rot. They really stink. I guess I’ll go in there in February and burn them off. I don’t want to do it now because I’m afraid the turkey will go in where I’ve burned.”

Robert says he fears that avian flu is being spread by those who spread chicken manure on their land for fertilizer. He also worries that cooler weather will bring in ducks and geese from other locations that has the disease.

“There’s no control over where they go and where they die,” he said.

The current strain of avian flu has been detected in wild birds across much of the U.S. in 2022. The number of states affected in 2022 is already more than double the number of states that were affected during the record outbreak of 2015. The disease has particularly affected waterfowl (ducks and geese) and scavenging species such as vultures and bald eagles.

DNR offers these recommendations to avoid the spread of avian flu:

  • Avoid handling sick or dead birds.
  • Seeing multiple dead wild birds in a single place? If they are vultures, crows, waterfowl (ducks and geese), other waterbirds (such as cormorants, pelicans, herons and egrets) or shorebirds, please report them to DNR. Also report individual dead or sick birds of prey (eagles, hawks, falcons, owls and osprey). DNR strongly recommends observing such incidents only from a distance to reduce the risk of disease transmission. Call 800.366.2661 for further guidance.
  • Keep pets away from sick or dead birds.

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