Bald Eagles

Deadly new strain of bird flu kills 9 bald eagles in upstate New York: ‘She literally fell out of the tree’

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In late March, a hunter saw snow geese behaving strangely at the Montezuma Wildlife Refuge in Cayuga County.

The geese were circling with their heads on their backs. The hunter called Krysten Schuler, co-director of the Cornell Wildlife Health Lab, which tracks wildlife disease in New York State. Schuler carried out tests and found that all of the geese were infected with a virulent new strain of bird flu called H5N1.

Sick snow geese have signaled the arrival of H5N1 — which is already sweeping the country — in central New York, and the birds are likely just the tip of the iceberg.

H5N1 is classified as a strain of “highly pathogenic avian influenza” (HPAI) because it is deadly to poultry. When the virus is detected in a single bird, the whole flock must be killed to contain the spread of the disease.

The latest HPAI outbreak in 2014-2015 resulted in the loss of more than 50 million poultry in 21 states according to a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) report. So far, H5N1 has affected almost 40 million poultry in 32 states.

But the HPAI this time has a much more serious impact on wild birds, by a factor of ten.

Map from the US Geological Survey showing the distribution of confirmed HPAI cases in the United States as of May 6, 2022.

Virus kills nine bald eagles

Schuler said H5N1 has killed at least nine bald eagles in New York since March, including one from Onondaga County. It has also been detected in a surprising variety of wild birds compared to the 2014-2105 outbreak, said Schuler, which left New York City unscathed with no bird deaths, wild or domestic.

According to the latest USDA count, 30 wild birds have so far been infected in New York. And that number is almost certainly higher, as wild birds often die unnoticed and therefore undetected. Additionally, USDA-confirmed cases can lag weeks behind reports from state labs like Cornell’s.

If the current HPAI outbreak follows the pattern of past outbreaks, it could “run out” in the coming weeks, Schuler said.

“We hope this will go away as the birds migrate north to their breeding grounds,” she said. “That’s kind of what we saw in 2015.”

But wildlife disease experts like Schuler worry about the ability of the virus to spread so quickly among so many different species of wild birds.

“We are a little worried that this will [combine with] with other flu viruses that birds carry,” she said, which could lead to a new, even deadlier strain.

Raptor rehabber captures a falcon with H5N1

On March 30, Morgan Hapeman received a call from a DEC police officer in northern Cayuga County about a Cooper’s Hawk flying erratically. Could she check? He asked.

Hapeman, a licensed bird rehabilitator, operates the Finger Lakes Raptor Center on Seneca Lake, a nonprofit facility that cares for sick, injured, or orphaned birds of prey and other avian species. She captured the falcon and brought it back to the raptor center.

“Cooper’s hawks run into stuff all the time while chasing birds,” Hapeman said, “and his symptoms were like head trauma. I thought nothing of it.

The hawk showed signs of neurological injury, but they were subtle, just “a little head jerk that wasn’t normal,” Hapeman said. In a video Hapeman shared with Syracuse.com, the falcon can be seen in an isolation crate, its head shaking uncontrollably.

The falcon died the next day. Hapeman took the carcass to Cornell where it tested positive for H5N1.

Bird flu spreads among CNY's bald eagles

Morgan Hapeman of the Finger Lakes Raptor Center captured this bald eagle in March when it fell from a tree near Sampson State Park in Seneca County. He was euthanized the next day at Cornell Wildlife Hospital.

“He literally fell from the tree”

On the night of April 29, Hapeman received another call, this time about an adult bald eagle acting strangely.

The eagle was perching in a tree in Sampson State Park, not far from the Raptor Center, when it fell to the ground after being “spooked” by a juvenile bald eagle, Hapeman said.

“There was no altercation or anything,” she said, noting that a healthy adult bald eagle would normally brawl with a juvenile at a roost.

“He literally fell out of the tree and crashed into the shrubbery below,” she said.

The park superintendent who originally called Hapeman approached the downed eagle and tucked in his wing, which was sticking out at an awkward angle. It was another indication for Hapeman that something was seriously wrong with the bird.

“Which eagle allows you to mount and retract its wing? ” She says. “Believe me, as someone who has handled a lot of eagles, I wouldn’t do that.”

They managed to put the eagle in an isolation crate and Hapeman brought it back to the raptor center for the night. He didn’t appear to be in distress, Hapeman said. No broken bones, cuts or tremors. It just looked sick, but with what?

Recalling his recent experience with the Coopers hawk, Hapeman suspected the eagle had HPAI and brought him to Cornell the next day for testing. Hours later, a vet called her to tell her the eagle was having head tremors that were progressing “to the point where her head was upside down,” Hapeman said.

Suspecting HPAI, the vet euthanized the eagle. The tests later came back negative for H5N1, but nothing else makes sense to Hapeman.

“Lead poisoning can cause these same neurological signs, but her lead level was low,” she explained. “His behavior was a bit like his brain didn’t know what was going on.”

The eagle had a ring on its leg dated May 6, 2003 indicating it was a male.

“He’s a local bird, and he was 19,” Hapeman lamented. “I’m sure he has a mate and he probably has babies in a nest. They could all be dead.

Songbirds and HPAI

Unlike poultry, waterfowl, shorebirds and raptors, songbirds do not appear to be affected by H5N1.

“We really don’t see any dead songbirds or dead passerines,” Schuler said. “It’s not something they receive in the same way, so we still don’t really know.”

Advice on backyard bird feeders is mixed. If you have a chicken coop in your garden, Extension of the Cornell cooperative recommends removing all wild bird feeders to reduce the risk of transmission between wild and domestic birds.

Out of an abundance of caution, the Audubon Society recommends that people who live in counties with known cases of HPAI, also dismantle bird feeders, said Chris Lajewski, director of the Montezuma Audubon Center.

“Removing bird feeders as a precaution isn’t a bad idea in the spring, when food resources are generally more plentiful,” Lajewski said. For those living in counties not affected by HPAI, Lajewski suggests washing feeders with soap or a 10 percent bleach solution.

Can people get sick from it?

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) considers the current risk to the general public from the current H5N1 outbreak to be down.

Since the outbreak began in late 2021, only one person in the United States has tested positive for H5N1. This person was involved in the culling of poultry suspected of being infected with H5N1 avian influenza in Colorado, the CDC said on its website. The patient reported fatigue for a few days and has since recovered.

HPAI symptoms in wild birds

If you witness suspicious wild bird behavior or death, report it to your rDEC regional office.

Raptors infected with H5N1 may not appear ill until shortly before death. The University of Minnesota Raptor Center lists the following most common symptoms of HPAI in wild birds:

  • the Depression
  • apathy
  • difficulty breathing
  • twisted neck
  • head tilted sideways
  • encircling
  • incoordination
  • leg/wing paralysis
  • tremors
  • inability to stand
  • arch of the back

HPAI symptoms in domestic birds

Cornell’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences lists these symptoms of HPAI in domestic birds:

  • Death without apparent cause
  • Lack of energy or appetite
  • Sudden drop in egg production or eggs with malformed shells
  • Swelling of the head, comb, eyelid, wattles and hocks
  • Purple discoloration of wattles, comb and legs
  • Runny nose, coughing and sneezing
  • Discoordination
  • Diarrhea

Steve Featherstone covers the exterior for The Post-Standard, www.syracuse.com and NYUP.com. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @featheroutdoors. You can also follow all of our outdoor content at newyorkupstate.com/outdoors/ or follow us on Facebook at facebook.com/upstatenyoutdoors.