LISTEN: Researchers at the University of Georgia found that a recent outbreak of H5N1 suppressed fledging rates of the region's bald eagles by about 30% in 2022. GPB's Benjamin Payne reports.

A bald eagle roosts at Crooked River State Park in Camden County, Georgia.

A bald eagle roosts at Crooked River State Park in Camden County, Ga. Though the national bird has rebounded from near-extinction in the 1970s, a severe bird flu epidemic threatens that recovery, scientists say.

Credit: Gail Hampshire / Creative Commons

Bald eagles in Coastal Georgia fledged fewer eaglets last year due to bird flu, according to a new study from the University of Georgia.

Researchers found that less than half of bald eagle nests in the region yielded at least one chick that reached flying age — a roughly 30% decrease from the average.

“I really couldn't sleep at night because I knew that these birds — and many, many other bird species, too — were suffering from this very severe viral illness,” said Nicole Nemeth, a University of Georgia professor and lead author of the study, which was published in Scientific Reports. “A lot of these birds have not had a lot of exposure to these types of viruses before, especially raptors.”

Glynn and Camden counties saw the most severe impacts, with their fledging rates decreasing by 62 and 43%, respectively.

Although bald eagles nest in some inland areas, only Georgia's six coastal counties were surveyed, due to COVID-19 restrictions.

A strain of H5N1 was introduced to eastern North America in December 2021 from Europe. The study notes that bird flu has become more frequent and severe in Europe, Asia and Africa over the past 20 years.

In addition to bald eagles and other raptor species, other infected birds include waterfowl, shorebirds and scavenging birds.

The study noted that the virus has the potential to roll back progress made from successful conservation efforts that began in the 1960s — when the bald eagle nearly became extinct in most of its range — including the federal ban of DDT and other similar insecticides. Bald eagles were removed from the list of threatened and endangered species in 2007.

Nemeth said that her team is already seeing signs that the bald eagle is struggling in 2023 because of H5N1.

“Unfortunately, on the larger scale, there's not a lot we can do about highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses at this point,” she said, but added that citizens can make a big difference by reporting any sick or dead birds to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.