Dead blackbirds tell no tales

Bird bath

Keep bird baths and bird feeders clean to keep birds safe–especially in the summer.

Published July 10, 2003, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Dead blackbird tells no tale about West Nile virus.”

2014 Update: The Centers for Disease Control website is the best place for West Nile Virus updates and information:

By Barb Gorges

While I was away over a weekend, my friend Ruth left two phone messages. The first, left Saturday, was, “Call me.”

By the time she left the second message Sunday morning, she knew she wouldn’t reach me before leaving town herself.

Apparently, she had found a dead blackbird while mowing her neighbor’s lawn. Would I find out if it had West Nile virus? Instructions for retrieving the double-bagged body followed.

Well, what are friends for? However, I hoped the neighbors weren’t watching as I pulled up in Ruth’s driveway late Sunday afternoon, got out of the car, walked to the big black plastic trash can provided by the city, lifted the lid, removed the carefully wrapped package and left with it.

The bird had been gently roasting all day in the solar-heated garbage container, but it only gave off a faint smell. At home I put it in the refrigerator until appropriate offices would be open on a weekday.

A few weeks before, a neighbor had called about dead blackbirds in her yard, concerned about West Nile virus. I had given her my best guess on who to call. Now it was my turn to find my way through bureaucratic channels.

Turns out the state veterinary lab has a special, toll-free, West Nile virus hotline, 877-996-2483. Among other information in its extensive message, it listed the only species of birds accepted for testing: crow, raven, blue jay and magpie.

Based on Ruth’s description and its heft, I knew without having to open the package, this dead bird was not one of the four species mentioned. So I unceremoniously removed it from the fridge and dumped it in my own big black garbage container.

We will never know if Ruth’s bird died of West Nile or something else.

Previous to the coming of the virus, people reported dead birds in their yards for which the cause of death apparently was not a predator or an accidental collision with a window.

There are a host of bird diseases and sometimes the avian amenities we provide in our yards lead to an unnatural concentration of birds and the setting for a mini-epidemic.

A few years ago a woman called me, reporting 30-40 dead blackbirds in her yard. If memory serves, autopsies diagnosed salmonella.

Disease around feeders and bird baths is more likely in summer. So if you notice sick or dead birds in your yard—and you haven’t sprayed chemicals lately—put away your feeders for awhile.

It breaks up the party and encourages the birds to go after all those annoying bugs hanging around the garden and patio. Otherwise, wash your feeders frequently.

Birds and other animals can be carriers of West Nile virus and when a mosquito bites one of them before biting humans, there’s a slim chance for serious medical problems for the humans.

However, Cheyenne and Wyoming, with the exception of mountain snow melt areas and some streams, are the most mosquito-free places I’ve ever lived.

Wyoming has other insect diseases of concern besides West Nile. No one this time of year spends the day afield without checking for ticks afterwards to avoid Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

Diseases carried by insects have always been around and have had major impact on civilizations.

It would be nice if we could do away with all creepy-crawlies. Of course, that would mean no more songbirds since so many are dependent on insects for food. Even a lot of the seed-eating species depend on insects and other arthropods to feed their young.

There is worry that West Nile will itself decimate bird populations. Chickadee numbers seem to be declining in the northeast, where West Nile was first diagnosed on this continent (American Birding—The 103rd Christmas Bird Count, National Audubon Society).

And animals recovering from West Nile virus appear to have permanent brain scarring (Smithsonian magazine, July 2003).

My advice is to take recommended precautions. Empty standing water every couple days, use mosquito larvae-eating fish in ponds, dress appropriately for areas with lots of insects and monitor your own patch of terra firma for changes.

A couple blue jays showed up in my yard this spring for a few days and then disappeared. West Nile crossed my mind. But the quiet was, apparently, due to nesting. This morning the racket in the alley turned out to be a young blue jay.

Oh good. Come on over son—help yourself to some of the bugs in my yard!

Don’t poison your yard to save it

Audubon at Home

Backyards should be places safe for people and wildlife. Graphic from Audubon at Home.

Published July 26, 2001, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Don’t poison your yard to save it. Natural defenses against pests are better for wildlife, people and pets.”

2014 Update: So many options and so much advice is available today for avoiding using pesticides. At the National Audubon Society website, look for “Audubon at Home,” If you live in Colorado and Wyoming, check out Audubon Rockies’ Habitat Hero program, Also check out this directory of pests and pest management:

By Barb Gorges

Which is more hazardous, walking New York City streets or hiking Wyoming’s back country? They have muggers; we have bears.

New York got ahead of us last summer, with an outbreak of West Nile Virus, which can be fatal to some jays and crows–and some people.

I was surprised, however, by a news release from the National Audubon Society. According to Ward Stone, chief wildlife pathologist for New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation, among 4,000 dead birds collected and tested for the virus, synthetic chemical pesticides were a contributing factor or cause of death more often than any other reason, including the virus.


Choice of last resort, this herbicide is not necessary if you get to know your yard and learn how it grows.

Lawn chemicals were among the most common toxins.

About a dozen pesticides approved for backyard use have caused documented die-offs of birds, author Joel Bourne writes in “The Audubon Guide to Home Pesticides.”

Nationally, we use three times more chemical pesticides on our lawns at home, school and the golf course than the total amount used by farmers. That statistic comes from David Pimental, a Cornell University scientist.

More than 100,000 cases of pesticide exposure were documented in 1998 at U.S. regional poison control centers. But the centers do not cover the whole country, and many people do not think to report what just seems like flu symptoms.

What’s a conscientious person to do?

Recently Audubon published a poster, “10 Commandments for a Healthy Yard,” which helps answer that question. Here are the commandments, with my local interpretation.

Go Organic. For a quick introduction to organic yard care methods–which will save you money as well as make your yard safer–pick up an issue of Organic Gardening magazine or visit

Make Your Turf Tough. Use grass varieties meant for our climate. Use sharp mower blades and cut high. Water well a couple times a week, rather than watering lightly every day.

Go Native! Plants native to our area will be less susceptible to pests–and they require less water. Check at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens for suggestions, or visit their web site,

Know Your Enemies. Figure out what bugs you have, whether you have enough to make treatment worthwhile and when in their life cycle is best to strike–and with what. Call the University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension horticulturist, Liberty Blain, 633-4383 or bring your bugs and diseases to her (in containers) at the office in the Old Courthouse, 310 W. 19th.

Treat Only When Necessary. Use nontoxic methods first, picking off insects, pruning affected areas, hosing down plants. For more remedies, look for books such as “The Encyclopedia of Natural Insect & Disease Control,” edited by Roger B. Yepsen or “Rodale’s All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening” edited by Fern Marshall Bradley.

Pick Your Pesticides. Don’t go for the “shotgun” approach. It will kill beneficial insects as well as pests. Use the least toxic product. The Environmental Protection Agency’s rating system is “caution” (least), “warning” and “danger” (most toxic).

Use Biological Controls or Biopesticides. If you can’t borrow a goat to eat your thistle, biological pesticides decompose more rapidly and are better at targeting the pest than chemical pesticides. Check the EPA’s biopesticides web site, (although I don’t agree that genetically altered plants should be included in EPA’s definition of biopesticides).

Follow Directions and Protect Yourself. And don’t forget to protect other people, pets and wildlife habitat from exposure. Read the label. Less is best.

Respect Your Neighbor’s Right to Know. Ever had your windows open to the light summer breeze–and the chemical drift of whatever your neighbor’s lawn care service is spraying? Thank goodness the City of Cheyenne is using modern methods to control mosquitoes instead of spraying malathion everywhere.

Teach Tolerance and Be Tolerant. As the poster explains, “Create natural yards, with a variety of pests, predators, weeds, wildlife and native plant species.”

My favorite: “Enjoy controlled untidiness, not time-consuming lawn maintenance,” and “show by doing.”

I don’t use pesticides in my yard, so had I been writing these commandments, I would have left out numbers 6, 8 and 9.

But if we were all to subscribe to the organic yard care philosophy, just imagine what the birds would think!

West Nile virus frightens letter writer

Black-billed Magpie

Black-billed Magpies were some of the hardest hit bird species when West Nile virus first arrived. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published May 27, 2004, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “West Nile virus frightens letter writer.”

2014 Update: West Nile virus is still a problem for people. For the latest information, go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website:

By Barb Gorges

My bird phone calls this time of year usually concern identification of migrants or the inconvenient nesting of robins. Two weeks ago, however, a caller said she had received an unsigned letter from a neighbor asking her to stop feeding birds. The anonymous writer worried that birds concentrated around a feeder will contribute to the spread of disease, including West Nile Virus.

While I abhor unsigned criticism, the letter writer did bring up points worth examining.

First, various bird diseases have been transmitted at feeders, including salmonella, and some of those are deadly for birds and or transmissible to people. That is why it is important to keep feeders clean and to quit feeding for several weeks if any sick birds are observed—whether lethargic or with facial tumors or other growths or sores.

My caller estimated she feeds five pounds of seed a day, so I said she should probably clean once a week. Scrubbing feeders with a solution of one part bleach to nine parts hot water is the usual advice.

Raking up seed hulls and any seed that has been rejected is important too. Buying sunflower seeds already hulled or making or selecting mixes without unpopular seed such as milo can reduce debris.

Nectar feeders need to be cleaned every few days so that hummingbirds don’t succumb to the lethal molds that can grow so fast in sun-warmed sugar water.

Summer bird feeding, as Francis Bergquist points out in an article in the May issue of Wyoming Wildlife magazine, is more for the pleasure of the bird watcher than the needs of the bird. Because birds have plenty of natural food sources available, stopping feeding for the summer is not a problem.

Providing a bird bath instead of or in addition to food could be beneficial and entertaining, but may further antagonize my caller’s neighbor because shallow, stagnant water is where Culex tarsalis, the mosquito responsible for Wyoming’s West Nile virus woes, leaves its larvae. Dumping out the bird bath water every three or four days will kill the larvae before they hatch, but other scummy organisms may need scrubbing.

At last week’s Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society meeting, guest speaker Terry Creekmore, vector-borne disease coordinator for Wyoming Department of Health and head of the state’s West Nile virus surveillance program, shed additional light on birds and the virus.

He said infected mosquitoes can infect birds, people and other animals when they bite. Birds are bitten on bare skin around their eyes and feet or under their wings. Rarely do human West Nile Virus cases come from anything but mosquitoes.

Terry said certain birds, for the few days the virus is active in their bodies, can infect mosquitoes that bite them. Laboratory studies of 30 bird species show several that can harbor enough of the virus to pass it on to mosquitoes: crow, blue jay, grackle, house sparrow, house finch, robin, red-winged blackbird, mallard and starling. These are some of our most common city birds.

Gus Lopez, director of the Laramie County Health Department, who also attended the meeting, was quick to point out that human infection rates are dependent on numbers of mosquitoes. With Laramie County’s BTI-based larvicide spraying program and education efforts, the prevalence of the virus can be kept low, though not eliminated.

There is a slim possibility that West Nile virus, along with other diseases, can infect a person handling a sick or dead bird. To dispose of a dead bird, use a plastic bag like a glove, pick up the bird and then pull the bag over it, tie it shut, seal it in another bag and put it outside with your other refuse.

To find out if the state wants to analyze your dead bird and how to submit it, call 1-877-WYO-BITE. At Wyoming’s West Nile virus Web site,, check out all the statistics and advice.

Basically, the risk of getting seriously ill or dying from West Nile virus decreases with the increase in funds available for spraying in the area, with increasing dryness of the weather and with increasing distance from rivers, creeks and irrigation water. Young and healthy people are least susceptible to the fever and encephalitis that may result from infection. Bird feeding is not listed as a hazard.

In Wyoming, people are at more risk of death or injury from a traffic accident than from death or illness from West Nile virus. In 2003, 165 people died and 6,248 were injured in more than 16,000 traffic accidents. In that same year, only nine people died of West Nile virus, out of 392 cases reported.

Just as you buy a car with safety features, wear your seatbelt and drive safely, you can look for and eliminate standing water in such places as clogged rain gutters, avoid spending the evening mosquito hours outdoors or wear protective clothing and DEET insect repellent.

What about the birds themselves? Crows, ravens, magpies and the different species of jays seem to have the lowest survival rates. However, in the wild, any evidence of dead birds is quickly eaten, so the total effect of the virus is not usually directly measurable.

However, last summer, radio-collared sage grouse being studied for the impact on their populations of coalbed methane drilling inadvertently became subjects of an impromptu West Nile virus study when researchers found them dead or found their empty radio-collars. This summer, $2.3 million has been granted to begin a three-year study of the relationship between sage grouse, West Nile virus and the stagnant waters of coalbed methane discharge ponds.

The future looks brighter. The virus first appeared in New York City in 1999 and in Wyoming in 2002, but already there is a horse vaccine and introduction of a human vaccine is only a couple years away.

Hopefully, birds that survive West Nile Virus will be able to pass their antibodies on to their young so that eventually, equilibrium will be established as it has in Africa, where the virus was first isolated in 1937. I predict a plethora of wildlife study topics for graduate students for quite some time.