Surging Bird Flu Cases in the U.S. Have Come for the Bald Eagle

A dangerous strain of the avian influenza has caused the deaths of millions of birds and is spreading fast in wild eagle populations.

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A bald eagle from the shoulders up.
Photo: Matthew Crowley Photography (Getty Images)

Three wild bald eagles found dead in Georgia were confirmed to have died from bird flu on Thursday, increasing the toll from a recent surge in avian influenza cases that’s caused the death of tens of millions of birds in total.

Across more than 25 states, massive numbers of wild and domestic birds are sick and dying from a new version of the avian influenza virus, which has caused multiple prior avian epidemics. It’s already the worst bird flu outbreak in the U.S. since 2015 in terms of domestic poultry deaths, and it’s burning through wild bird populations at a troubling rate.

On Thursday, initial testing of more than 200 deceased waterbirds at Baker’s Lake forest preserve near Chicago, consisting mostly of double-crested cormorants, revealed those animals probably died of avian influenza as well. Cormorants seem to have been very susceptible to the disease because they gather at crowded nesting grounds; in contrast, only a few dozen bald eagles have been killed so far, because they’re more solitary.


“This outbreak in wild bird populations is a lot more extensive than we saw in 2014 and 2015,” David Stallknecht, a bird flu researcher at the University of Georgia, said in an interview with NPR. “Just a lot more birds appear to be affected.”

The bird flu outbreak is also heavily taxing the poultry industry. Infected flocks of domestic chickens and turkeys are culled, or killed en masse, by poultry producers in attempts to contain the flu’s spread. As of April 3, the USDA estimated that more than 23 million poultry had been culled so far (more than 50 million were killed in 2015). Those losses are starting to become visible on grocery store shelves, as chicken, eggs, and the processed egg-derived powders that are used in many packaged foods shoot up in price.


Avian influenza is an incredibly dangerous disease for birds. In chickens, the worst forms of the virus have a mortality rate upwards of 90%, and usually kill within just two days after destroying multiple organ systems.

Bird flu can sometimes jump species and be deadly for people, but for now, humans don’t seem to be at increased risk of infection from this particular strain, known as H5N1. There’s no reason to avoid birds or eating properly cooked poultry products (aside from the standard environmental ones).


In theory, that could change, but there hasn’t ever been a single recorded human case of human H5N1 infection in the United States, and since 2003 the World Health Organization has received fewer than 900 H5N1 human infections globally.