Concerns are growing for Scotland’s largest bird of prey after a dead white-tailed eagle chick tested positive for bird flu.
In mid-July, 19 chicks appeared ready to fly from their nests on Mull, which would have been just one shy of last year’s record.
But earlier this month, Dave Sexton, an RSPB Scotland officer in Mull – which monitors birds on the island – began to receive reports of suspected dead eagle chicks in many places in Mull.
In recent weeks, chicks from at least four white-tailed eagle nests have died shortly before or after fledging.
As unexpected deaths at this stage of eagle development are unusual, NatureScot and RSPB Scotland arranged for expert climbers to access nesting sites and collect the bodies of dead chicks to test for Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI). .
A total of four dead chicks were discovered while two were too decomposed to test.
The most recently deceased chick has since tested positive for bird flu, while the other chick tested negative.
However, the RSPB notes that this chick was in an advanced stage of decomposition which may have impacted the results.
The conservation charity said the death of these chicks had a significant impact on the breeding success of the species, with only half the number of chicks expected to survive compared to 2021.
Sexton said the chicks’ deaths were “heartbreaking”.
“Late summer is usually an amazing time of year for Mull’s white-tailed eagles as the young take flight and learn to fend for themselves; a happy time for those of us who followed them for their first few months.
“The last few weeks however have been heartbreaking with so many chicks dying. To visit nest after nest where, instead of hearing the young birds cry, there is silence, and where the adult birds ignore my presence rather than be alarmed, it is dreadful.
“At the moment in Mull it seems only the chicks are affected, but such a significant loss of youngsters this year is very worrying.”
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While a less successful breeding year will not have a big impact on Scotland’s white-tailed eagle population, there are fears that a prolonged outbreak of bird flu spanning several summers could cause long-lasting damage. term.
White-tailed eagles were reintroduced to Scotland in 1975 after persecution by humans led to their extinction in 1918.
The first wild chick from the reintroduced population hatched in 1985 and their numbers have grown steadily ever since, contributing millions to the local economy.
The Scottish government recently confirmed it was not considering culling the birds after some politicians called for targeted culling to protect lambs from predation. Bird flu has already killed tens of thousands of wild birds in the UK in recent months.
Popular tourist destinations such as the Isle of May have been temporarily closed to the public to help protect seabirds from the spread of HPAI, which has decimated populations of gannets, great skuas and terns in Scotland .
The Scottish Government has set up a task force led by NatureScot to coordinate action to tackle the current outbreak and plan ahead for any future outbreaks.
The RSPB has also called for an immediate moratorium on the release of captive game birds by the shooting industry to help reduce the risk of exacerbating the crisis among wild populations.