Nearly half of Florida’s 67 counties have at least one confirmed case of a highly infectious bird flu strain spreading through the state’s wild bird populations, according to state wildlife data.
Thirty counties – including Palm Beach County – have verified cases of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) that can make birds lethargic, increase the chance of seizures and lead to death in severe cases.
The new strain of HPAI was first documented in the United States last year and was first detected in Florida this January after a hunter killed a blue-winged teal duck in Palm Beach County, according to the institute.
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Bird flu cases have decreased in recent weeks as temperatures have risen, but they are still popping up in black vulture populations and a few other species, according to wildlife experts. There remains a “low risk” the virus spreads to humans.
Still, the virus has already claimed the lives of some of Florida’s most iconic birds. Over 20 bald eagles, six great horned owls and countless lesser scaup ducks have succumbed to the avian disease, according to an analysis of the latest mortality data.
There are 163 confirmed cases statewide as of July 7, according to federal data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s nearly 10% of all bird flu cases in wild birds throughout the nation, the agency says.
The toll is likely much higher, according to Mark Cunningham, a wildlife veterinarian with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“There is no accurate estimate,” he told TCPalm. “The total numbers are in the thousands.”
Palm Beach, Martin and Indian River counties have confirmed bird flu cases, while St. Lucie County has at least one suspected case, according to the most recent FWC data available Tuesday.
Below: Where is bird flu spreading?
Through early May, at least 23 bald eagles had died from the virus, according to state wildlife data. Brevard County led the state with eight eagle deaths, and at least one eagle died in Indian River County since the virus was first detected in Florida in January.
Since May, however, no other eagles have died. The most recent case of a bald eagle contracting bird flu was confirmed on May 23, according to Rebecca Hardman, an FWC wildlife veterinarian. That eagle, which federal data shows was found in Collier County, eventually died after it had “severe neurologic signs,” Hardman said.
So far, the virus is still being found only in wild birds, and has not spread to captive populations like turkeys or chickens, Cunningham said. The lesser scaup duck species, with a bright blue bill and an ink-black head, has seen the most infections in Florida, along with vultures and Muscovy ducks.
Which birds are getting the virus?
Birds can spread the virus through feces, saliva and nasal secretions, according to FWC. All bird species can contract the virus, but the most susceptible are raptors, scavengers, waterbirds and waterfowl. Those include:
Songbirds are usually low-risk for carrying bird flu, but “it cannot be ruled out” that bird-feeder species could host the virus, according to FWC. Still, the agency suggests cleaning bird baths and feeders with a 10% bleach solution, or one part bleach mixed with nine parts water.
How to report sick, dead, injured birds
You can help Florida biologists investigate the bird flu outbreak by reporting any sightings of sick or dead birds. Observations help biologists understand where outbreaks are occurring in real-time and it helps inform response efforts.
Report your observations at app.myfwc.com/FWRI/AvianMortality.
Max Chesnes is a TCPalm environment reporter focusing on issues facing the Indian River Lagoon, St. Lucie River and Lake Okeechobee. You can keep up with Max on Twitter @MaxChesnes, email him at email@example.com and give him a call at 772-978-2224.
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