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Leuven eagle owl died of pigeon herpes

A male eagle owl that had been living in the centre of the Flemish Brabant town of Leuven died of pigeon herpes. The cause of death has been established by Ghent University’s Wildlife Health Ghent team. A couple of months ago three eagle-owl chicks were left orphaned in the center of Leuven after their mother had disappeared and their father was found dead not far from their nest.

The weakened eagle owl chicks were taken to the bird and wild animal sanctuary at Heusden-Zolder (Limburg). Wildlife Health Gent carried out an autopsy on the male eagle owl that was found dead. The results of the autopsy have now been released and they show that he died of pigeon herpes.

"Several white spots were identified on the liver and spleen, which indicate the presence of an infectious disease. Further investigation is now pointing to the presence of pigeon herpes virus, more specifically the CoHV1 virus. The virus circulates in the wild pigeon population without causing too much issues.  Bird of prey become infected after CoHV1-positive pigeons. they become ill as soon as the virus gets into their organs. 

Vet Naomie Terriere examined the dead owl "It was a suspicious death, so we investigated everything. It soon turned out that it was not a hunting incident or a bullet that caused the bird to die. We were also able to exclude poisoning as possible cause. We identified stains on the owl’s organs. that pointed to disease and eventually we concluded that these had been caused by the pigeon herpes virus. Eagle owls that live deep in the forests of the Ardennes will have much more prey to choose from. There are always a lot of pigeons in a city center and now we know that they may pose a danger to birds of prey such as eagle owls."

Should pigeons be kept away from eagle owls?

It is impossible to fight the pigeon herpes virus due to the very large population of pigeons. Wildlife Health Ghent says that infected birds continue to carry the virus throughout their lives, but usually remain otherwise healthy. In pigeons the virus causes no visible symptoms.

Controlling the virus in the pigeon population is therefore very difficult. Also avoiding transmission to birds of prey in the wild is not easy. For birds of prey that are kept in captivity it is strongly advised not to feed them dead pigeons and to keep them away from pigeons that are alive. However, in the wild it would be almost impossible to prevent birds of prey such as eagle owls from coming into contact with pigeons.

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